Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Colorado. Rocky Mountains. Forests. Farms. Water. The tallest sand dunes in North America. What? No kidding! Sprawling over 330 square miles, sand and sediment from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges blew and washed into what was once a huge lake. As the lake filled in, the gusty, year round wind piled the sand into dunes and continues to feed and shift the dunes today. The park contains nearly half the Dunes, while most of the rest are part of  a National Preserve in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.

Another anomaly of the park is that it contains 7 life zones and the many animals and plants that inhabit them. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep can be found in Alpine Tundra; black bear roam Subalpine Forests; bobcats prowl among the pinon and juniper of Montane Forests; brightly colored tiger beetles liven up the Dunefields; elk wander the Grasslands; sandhill cranes patrol the Plains; finally, there are Streams and Wetlands, where beaver can sometimes be found. So this is Colorado after all.

I find the Dunes to be particularly striking during Lent. The stark barrenness of the dunefield summoned us into its emptiness. The mysterious undulations teased us into pursuing their secrets. Were there hidden spaces, or just endless drifts? Daddy couldn’t resist removing his shoes to sink his feet into the soft, silky sand. I left my boots on. The wind was icy and the dunes were not reflecting the sun’s warmth on this day.

As Yak crested a steep mound, the merciless wind stole his cowboy hat and deposited it playfully on the even steeper backside. Despite my dislike of vertical slopes, I judged that even if I rolled down to the bottom, the worst I would get would be sand in my hair, so I went after the headpiece. Halfway there I was creeping on all fours. Just as I was within reach of my goal, daddy clambered over the ridge and stopped right in front of the topper, laughing at me. Refusing to admit defeat, I pounced upon the hat and we all sat down on the backside of the dune, out of the sandstorm, for a much needed rest and a good laugh.

The wind was in our faces on the way back to the truck. I held securely to Yak’s hat, not wishing to repeat my recent heroics. Any trace of our hike in was already blown away. The lenten journey is all here in the dunes. The emptying of myself. The overcoming of fear to serve another. Laughing at my shortcomings. Struggling uphill in the sand one way and against the wind the other. Reaching the truck never felt so good. Closing the door on the tempest. Turning on the heater. Making hot chocolate with the thermos of hot water I brought. The journey is difficult, we screw up along the way. The destination is worth it.


Halloween at Calico Ghost Town

On any day of the year, Calico Ghost Town, in Yermo, California (just outside of Barstow on Interstate 15) is, well, a ghost town.  On Halloween, all the skeletons come out of the closet and dance in the streets.  Residents and vendors alike enthusiastically decorate with creepy cloth, dusty curtains, skulls and other scary stuff, in anticipation of two wild weekends of  “Calico Ghost Haunt“.  Apparently, campers at the adjacent campground also decorate, and the Ghost Haunt is supposed to include all kinds of family style Halloween activities, including the recently revived Ghost Tours.  We were unable to make it, as we were there the weekend before.

In the 15 or so years since I last visited Calico, the town has added museums and attractions that weren’t previously available.  Apparently being named California’s Official Silver Rush Ghost Town has been good for Calico and for San Bernardino County Regional Parks, which operates it.

The Maggie Mine tour is a kick.  For $2 adults and $1.50 children over 5, we got to walk through one of the few stabilized mines anywhere.  Every room has a mining scene, depicting the daily operation of a silver mine.

Just below the Maggie, Chinatown lies in ruins.  One tiny stone hut is fitted with a cot, fireplace, and table to show the cramped quarters.  Nearby lies a ruin that must have been a multi-family dwelling.  We spent several minutes going in and out of all the rooms.

Another fun stop is the old schoolhouse, with desks
neatly lined up and slates at the ready.  That little building out back (can’t see it in the picture) is the outhouse.  My son was appalled when I told him about the wooden seat and the newspaper TP.


Other restored and/or rebuilt buildings include a blacksmith shop, firehouse, restaurant/hotel, saloon, post office/general store, newspaper office and several others.  Many of these house gift shops, including one with lots of brain teasers, and a couple real leather shops.

Outside the sheriff’s office stands a jail cell and hangin’ tree.

Though there are several gift and souvenir shops, my
favorite has to be the old time general store.  Complete with “unmentionables” hanging from the rafters, displays of bulk goods and old fashioned candies for sale.  We got a couple of stick candies, and the licorice flavored one tasted more like real licorice than most of what passes for that particular candy on today’s market.  With many items of antique clothing and other household goods on display, the general store is part museum, part convenience store, with propane, canned goods and other camping supplies, and part souvenir shop.

Several other museums are in the works in various buildings.  Other attractions in the park include a railroad ride, Mystery Shack, Gold panning and the cemetery.  Admission to the park is $7 for adults and $4 for children.  Kids under 5 are free.  If you decide to camp at Calico, admission is included.
Calico hosts several events throughout the year, check the San Bernardino County Regional Parks website for info.

Bumped by Burros in Oatman, Arizona

It all started innocently enough.  Tired of the monotonous drive between Arizona and California along Interstate 40, I managed to talk my family into a detour to see the ghost town of Oatman, neatly tucked away on Old Route 66 between Kingman and Bullhead City. Indeed, it would add a few hours to the monotonous drive, but they would be entertaining hours, which would give us something interesting to think and talk about as we crossed the great Mojave.
Just outside of Kingman, we exited I40 at Shinarump Dr.  Following the signs to Oatman Highway, we took in the sights as Old Route 66 led us away from civilization. My 9 year old son and I took turns guessing at locations from the movie “Cars”. Sighting several old mine shafts, we discussed the possibilities of venturing out to do some gold prospecting of our own. Soon we were passing the Gold Road mine. (Link goes to a blog with some highlights about the mine.) The mine is officially closed, but every time we take this detour, we see at least a dozen vehicles parked there.
Oatman springs out of the landscape suddenly from this direction, so as soon as I saw the sign I slowed down. The highway goes right through the middle of town, and very likely, there will be some burros wandering the streets. Once a defunct mining town, reborn as a tourist attraction, Oatman boasts a charming Old West atmosphere with its false-front stores, board walks and daily “gun fights”. Wild burros roam the streets freely, and have no hesitation about walking up to you and inspecting to see if you have any treats for them. Burro food is available in nearly all the shops. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent part of their honeymoon at the Oatman Hotel, (click link for some great reviews), their Honeymoon Suite is still a major attraction. Several ghosts are reported to haunt the town, but mostly we saw other tourists.
 Food is available at several restaurants and shops, and there are quite a few souvenir stands offering a variety of commercial and handmade items.  One vendor, Brenda, was set up in a covered wagon, offering cold drinks, kettle corn and her own self-published children’s books and calendars featuring the Oatman burros. I have a soft spot for authors in general and self-published ones in particular, so I stopped to chat and ask a few questions.  As we talked, I kept getting bumped in the behind. I looked around me, but no one was close enough to be the guilty party. As I turned to scold my son, I found that the culprit was actually a jenny, looking for a handout! As our entire party burst into giggles at my expense (which I was more than happy to provide), I scratched the critter behind the ears, then shooed her away to pester someone else.
It was getting time for us to move along anyway. We cast last, longing glances at the hills, then got in the car and turned up the air conditioning. Oatman Highway to Bullhead City is a pleasant drive. From there, it’s just about 20 minutes to Needles, California, where we pick up Interstate 40 again, to cross the desolate Mojave desert. Only now, we have a burro bumping adventure to relive, and a host of gold mining dreams and ghost stories to get us across to grandpa’s house.