In 1944, the San Luis Valley was considered as a possible site for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb.
Even in 1999, in a United States of 280 million, it was not a stretch to characterize the Valley as equally “remote.”
World-class downhill skiing comes to mind when one thinks of Colorado. However, despite all the snow that accumulated on the mountains cradling the San Luis Valley, Alamosa was clearly not a “ski town” like Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs. The nearest downhill-skiing resort to Alamosa was Taos, an hour-and-forty-minute jaunt. The nearest downhill-skiing area―that is, a business offering skiing with chair-lifts and a lodge but no overnight accommodations―was Wolf Creek, an hour-and-a-quarter drive in the opposite direction. (And fans of Wolf Creek were more likely to stay overnight in the stylish resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, west of the ski area.) Being a desert, the central Valley lacked snow sufficient even for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Meanwhile, rafting and kayaking on the Rio Grande in the Valley’s heart lacked excitement, for there the river, even when swollen, was nearly bereft of whitewater.
About the only outdoor recreation the Valley could truly tout, beyond soaking in a number of modestly-developed natural hot springs and raising dust on some federal flatlands on motorized vehicles, was romping up and down, on foot, the dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. People lived in Alamosa primarily to farm, ranch, and teach at and attend Adams State and the Alamosa branch of Trinidad State Junior College.
Still, the Valley was a permanent home to a wide variety of people, including artists. Several art galleries were located on Alamosa’s main street. The city had an independent bookstore, an “emergency shelter” for the homeless partially supported by a downtown coffeehouse, and a food bank. The city had a National Public Radio-affiliated station, with a satellite office in Taos, whose signal reached all of the Valley and much of north-central New Mexico.
The Valley’s citizenry included environmental advocates who, in the interests of the area’s farming operations large and small, in the 1990’s successfully fought a corporate effort to mine the Valley’s underground water and pipe it to the population centers along Colorado’s front range. The government-funded medical clinic for which Linda worked had satellite clinics throughout the Valley. Huddled in the foothills of the Valley’s northeast corner was the former mining town of Crestone, a bastion of New Age thought that included a respected school of massage therapy and a world-renowned “Zen center.”
A standard-gauge railroad, once a branch of the famed Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, served the Valley. Regular, short, slow-moving freight trains from Colorado’s Front Range entered the Valley via La Veta Pass. From Alamosa, the line branched northwest to serve agricultural interests, and south to serve agricultural and mining interests. The railroad ran a quarter-mile from our house. Meanwhile, a narrow-gauge tourist railroad that ran from Antonito, Colorado, in the southern portion of the Valley, to Chama, New Mexico, 35 miles to the southwest, operated daily from late-spring to early-fall, its passenger cars pulled by steam locomotives traversing some of the most spectacular landscapes in the southern Rockies.
What Linda and I came to like about Alamosa, in addition to its affordability, was its leisurely pace, rural character, breathtaking views, and, thanks largely to its Latino population, a robust Democratic base.
Yes, there was glamor in Alamosa, but it was distant. Yet those distant mountains watered the Valley’s bread and butter: a vast flatland of pastures stocked with cattle and millions of acres of grains and produce. Thus, Alamosa was a curious mixture of poverty, agribusiness, and the summons of a vast, raw wilderness.