Not all who wander are lost. Wandering around the western United States is not a bad way to spend time. I do it as much as possible. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve will see the majority of visitors this weekend in the San Luis Valley with Memorial Day weekend being the summer kickoff for travel. Inevitably, large crowds will be at all National Parks over the next few months, as it should be. The parks are special places! But, one thing is certain. All National Parks and National Monuments are close to other state and Federal lands that offer wilderness adventures far from the madding crowds.
Across the SLV, a one to two hour drive from the Dunes, to the west, are such places. This was my quest recently. I stopped into the Conejos Peak Ranger District office south of La Jara on 285 to get maps and discuss where a good trail might be without much snowpack or where roads were open into SWAs (state wilderness areas), BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and the Rio Grande National Forest. Late season snows are keeping many areas at higher elevations closed. After discussion with the staff, and deliberation in my mind, I headed west from La Jara on Highway 15 to County Road 255 toward Terrace Reservoir to see where I might find fun and adventure on this weekday afternoon. After 25 miles of recently graded dirt road, making the surface smooth but dusty, I found myself above the reservoir. I passed a few remote ranches along the Alamosa River, and drove onto CR 250 that heads west toward Platoro Reservoir. Several miles later I pulled into the Alamosa Campground. I pulled through, noticed two families camping, and parked my car. No trails were listed nearby so as is my custom on occasion, I started running the road west, toward snow covered ridges. A half mile later...
An old Chevy Suburban with a tent pitched behind it was on my left toward the river. Out came a bounding golden retriever to greet me. I gave her the pets and head scratches she was craving when she was soon followed by her owner. He apologized for her 'overzealous friendliness.' "Nature of the breed," I said. And thus began an intellectual adventure with Bruce and Chum.
Bruce is 82, a veteran, and a self-confessed, bum. We had talked for several minutes prior, and I assured him, he was not. He had been in sales for 20 years, worked in ski resorts at Sunday River Maine, Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, Jackson Hole and Lake Tahoe. He'd managed a lodge in northern Utah. Versatile he had been in his working life. Now, he camped for a living! "Do you know how many people would be envious of your life?" I asked. He shrugged in a humble fashion. So I asked him where he liked the best. He loves the west but his favorite mountain range is the San Juans in Colorado, hence the reason he was here. He liked the remoteness of the National Forests where he could camp for 2 weeks and then move on to somewhere new.
I asked him about his uniquely painted Suburban. His RV he called it. He had picked it up from a government sale down in Magdalena New Mexico years ago. A quarter of a million miles later... I told him I knew Magdelena (have run the mountains near there many times.).
Said he met a rancher who needed someone to care for his cattle so he could go to Albuquerque (100 miles) to see his kids and grandchildren. Bruce took the duty. In exchange, the rancher gave him a place where he could build his own small house. He did. Out of sand bags and adobe! He lived there for 4 years before adopting his new life.
Camping for a living does not come without its perils. He said he had never seen a mountain lion in the wild until one morning in a campground, barely light outside, Chum scurried out of the tent and began barking. Bruce looked out and thought he saw someone else's dog until he saw the tail. Bruce spread his arms to indicate how long and big the tail was and said it was a monstrous mountain lion. He said he and Chum were both lucky as the mountain lion could have taken them both, but, fortunately, mountain lions are often annoyed by barking dogs. The lion left without incident.
In mid-May, when the mountains had a temporary return to winter, Bruce and Chum were camping alone. He went to use the campground outhouse when he found that someone had removed the doorknob on the inside and the door had latched shut. He said the place is built like a fortress and the small windows were up too high and he could not get to them. Calls for help, he knew, would be useless, as no one was around. He took off his belt, rigged it in such a way, that he was able to open the latch. He knows he was lucky, as that could have ended badly. He went into town for supplies (30 miles) and reported it to the Ranger station.
They said they would send someone out to repair it. But, before they could, several days later he heard cries for help and he had to let a gentleman out who had been trapped for 90 minutes. Fear not, the door has been fixed. He had a few other Wild West stories. He said he retreats to West Virginia in the winter, check in with the VA office and to be with his daughter. I suggested that I could call her and let her know he was okay but he said no, that he had been in touch with her several weeks before and he had often gone longer without contacting her.
He did not want to hold me up so I continued my out and back. I contemplated why humans like to travel. My mind drifted to wanderers and explorers from John Muir to Edward Abbey, from Amelia Earhart to Sacajawea and to all of us, travelers seeking what? We seem to be looking for something 'out there' but is what we are actually seeking, simply ourselves? And is Mother Nature our best guide? Many wanderers have concluded such. Me too.
On my return, here came Bruce and Chum walking up the road for their evening jaunt. Bruce told me to come back and find him anytime and I said that I would. Maybe our paths will cross again, perhaps not. We shook hands one more time and I watched him, walking stick and faithful Chum by his side, walk away into the brightness of the late afternoon sun.
I encourage those of you who would like solitude on this Memorial weekend to head west across the valley. You may be surprised at what you might find and who you may meet! Perhaps Bruce and Chum, who, in my mind, are already wandering legends.