I believe my initial understanding of San Luis Valley and Alamosa largely holds true today.
Even in a United States of 330 million, it’s not a stretch to characterize the Valley as remote. It certainly was in 1944, when it was considered as a possible site for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb. The nearest large population center to Alamosa is Pueblo, a two-hour drive away.
The mountains and hills that cordon off the Valley, forming a somewhat triangular configuration, are sparsely inhabited. At the Valley’s northern end, the apex of the triangle consists of the confluence of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the southern reaches of the Sawatch Mountains to the west. From there the Sangres run unbroken south into New Mexico. Meanwhile, the western side of the triangle is crumbly and porous. North to south, it consists of the remnants of the Sawatch Mountains, the eastern reaches of the Cochetopa Hills and La Garita Mountains, and the easternmost ranges of the San Juan Mountains. At the southern end of the valley―actually, northern New Mexico―two individual and nearly identical mountains, San Antonio and Ute, suggest the base of the triangle.
World-class downhill skiing comes to mind when one thinks of Colorado. However, despite all the snow that accumulates on these various mountains, Alamosa is not a “ski town” like Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs. From Alamosa, one must drive across twenty miles of gray desert scrubland to reach the Sangres. Fifty miles of driving north across an often equally desolate landscape is required to reach the foot of Poncha Pass, where the Sangres and the Sawatch meet. The various mountains to the west are only slightly closer to the city. Finally, San Antonio and Ute mountains are each about a half-hour away. The nearest downhill-skiing resort to Alamosa is Taos, an hour-and-forty-minute jaunt; the nearest downhill-skiing area―that is, skiing with chair-lifts and a lodge but no overnight accommodations―is Wolf Creek, an hour-and-a-quarter motor in the opposite direction. (Fans of Wolf Creek are more likely to stay overnight in the tony resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.) You live in Alamosa to farm, ranch, serve farmers and ranchers, and study at Adams State, not downhill ski.
Even if one merely wanted to cross-country ski or snowshoe, he or she would be hard-pressed to do so anywhere on the Valley floor, for, as has been noted, the various mountains create a rain shadow that denies the valley quantities of snow necessary for the Nordic skier and snowshoe-er. Rafting and kayaking on the Rio Grande in the Valley’s heart lack excitement, for here the river, even when swollen, is bereft of whitewater. About the only outdoor recreation the Valley can truly tout, beyond soaking in a number of modestly-developed natural hot springs and raising dust on some federal flatlands on motorized vehicles, is romping up and down on foot the remarkable dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The size of Connecticut (population 3,565,000), the San Luis Valley has a population of about 48,000. Alamosa has a permanent population of about 8,000. The population increases to 10 or 11,000 when Adams State University is in session. A little less than half the population of Alamosa is Latino, and the Valley thus comprises the largest conglomeration of Latinos in Colorado. The Valley also has more poverty―roughly 18% of its population―than any other region of Colorado.
Many of the residential buildings in the heart of Alamosa look as if they’d been imported from the middle-class neighborhoods of Ames, Iowa; others, from the impoverished rural areas of our home in New Mexico’s Doña Ana County. Most of the houses are of wood clapboard, brick, and, in the case of the single- and double-wide trailer homes, aluminum. Log homes are occasionally seen, as are geodesic domes constructed of various materials. The half-dozen homes that comprised our neighborhood were of the pueblo-revival style.
The San Luis Valley’s beauty and affordability attracts artists; several art galleries are located on Alamosa’s main street. The city has an independent bookstore, an “emergency shelter” partially supported by a downtown coffeehouse, and a food bank. The city has a National Public Radio-affiliated station―with a satellite office in Taos―whose signal reaches all of the San Luis Valley and much of north-central New Mexico. The Valley has environmental advocates who, in the interests of the area’s farming operations large and small, in the nineties successfully fought a corporate effort to mine the Valley’s underground water and pipe it to the population centers along Colorado’s front range. Alamosa has a government-funded medical clinic, with satellite clinics throughout the Valley, for the area’s indigent population; Linda was initially employed at the Alamosa location. Huddled in the foothills of the Valley’s northeast corner is the former mining town of Crestone, an interesting bastion of New Age thought that includes a school of massage therapy and a world-renowned “Zen center.”
What Linda and I liked about Alamosa was its combination of leisurely pace, affordability, rural surroundings, breathtaking views, and a substantial politically-liberal population. Latinos are generally liberal―that is, they acknowledge the value and importance of government―and thus tend to vote Democratic, and Alamosa’s large Latino population meant the city had a healthy Democratic base. When we arrived, its representative in Congress was a Republican, but I attributed that to the fact that Alamosa is in a congressional district that includes a chunk of Colorado’s conservative eastern plains and all of the state’s conservative western third. (Five years after our arrival, a Democratic Latino from Alamosa won the seat.)
Finally, I was delighted to realize a railroad serves the Valley. During our time in Alamosa, the line had a succession of owners: the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Rail America, the San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad, and Permian Basin Railways. The single-track line enters the Valley from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the foot of La Veta Pass, east of the town of Fort Garland. At the west end of downtown Alamosa, just beyond the city’s railroad station, the line splits into two branches, one traveling south, where it dead-ends in Antonito, and the other venturing northwest, where it dead-ends in Creede, Colorado; near the town of Monte Vista, the northwest branch branches even further to serve agricultural interests in the center of the Valley. The railroad’s business is conducted in offices at the Alamosa station. When I lived in the Valley, a freight the train arrived from the east―specifically, from Walsenburg, Colorado, where the line links up with a main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad―every weekday morning and returned to Walsenburg every weekday evening. In addition to agriculture, the railroad served a mining company in Antonito. The south-branching track ran a quarter-mile from our house, and we crossed it daily. The relatively slow-moving trains, usually consisting of a single locomotive pulling a dozen cars, sounded their whistles at the crossing, and this delivered me pleasantly back to my days of lying a-bed on hot summer nights and listening to the heavy traffic on the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad not far from our New Jersey house.
Yes, there is glamor in Alamosa, but it is distant. Yet those distant mountains surround the Valley’s bread and butter: a vast flatland of pastures stocked with cattle and millions of acres of potatoes, barley, alfalfa, wheat, and lettuce. So Alamosa is a curious mixture of poverty, agribusiness, and the summons of a vast, raw wilderness.