Visiting the Great Sand Dunes – America’s version of the Sahara Desert – is never a good idea in the middle of July. Nevertheless, we breakfasted early and headed north out of Taos toward Alamosa, Colorado. My friend and sometimes red-head Pat, and I had visited the Dunes the previous November when the sand was cool. Bonnie Pitts, of Tanner, was at the wheel of the Chrysler Caravan, the red-heads, Pat and Penni were in the back, and I rode shotgun and acted as guide. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose up to our right like a purple wall.
“Sangre de Cristo means blood of Christ,” I said to 12-year-old Leslie Pitts. “Spanish Conquistadors thought they were the color of blood.”
To know the past is to predict the future. Leslie understands that when he’s around me he has to endure a short history lesson whether he likes it or not. “The Spanish came to this area in the 1500’s looking for the Seven Cities of Gold,” I said, “and they brought with them priests to convert the Indians to Christianity. They didn’t find the Cities of Gold and they didn’t convert the Indians, but they did burn a few at the stake.”
On our left was a wide sage brush plain as far as the eye could see, interrupted by an occasional brown butte and mesa.
“Look!” Leslie pointed to a band of horses.
“They’re wild mustangs,” I said.
The San Luis Valley funnels north into southern Colorado and bumps up against rugged mountain peaks, Mount Blanca being the tallest at 14,345 feet. At the base of the peaks are 330 square miles of sand dunes, the highest rising 450 feet.
At the Dunes, Leslie grabbed a plastic sled that Pat had purchased for him to slide down the dunes and we began our trek to the top. I danced on the hot sand to keep it from burning my feet. It was so hot that it melted the soles of a woman’s Nikes. Not surprisingly, the plastic sled didn’t perform well on the burning sand. On the fun scale, the adventure was one click short of visiting Hades. I was about to melt. Bonnie and I headed down to find shade. A gaggle of Boy Scouts who had been camping out in the nearby wilderness hurried past us jabbering about what they were going to eat when they reached civilization.
“I’m eating three Big Mac’s,” one said. “I’m having four and lots of fries,” said another.
The following morning, Shannon, who had worked as a river guide doing float trips down the Rio Grande called and made reservations for us with Los Rios River Runners. “I recommend going with Sysco,” she said. “He’s married to Angelica Houston’s sister.”
“The actress Angelica Houston?” I asked.
“Yep, if you’re lucky enough to ride with Sysco, it’ll be a hoot.”
The Rio Grande begins life high in the mountains of southern Colorado and flows south through a 500 – 800 foot gorge west of Taos. Shannon recommended that we take a scenic back road to the departure site. The road, a white knuckle dirt one, was dusty with hairpin curves that snaked down to the river. Not even a reckless teenager would have dared texting on that deadly road.
At the river’s edge we were instructed on safety, issued a paddle and a life jacket and assigned to rubber raft. Luckily, we drew Sysco, a friendly fellow with a black beard. Sysco operated the tiller and issued a torrent of instructions to paddlers. Sometimes he ordered us to paddle backward to avoid rushing holes of turbulent water; or ordered one side to paddle forward while the other side paddled backward. “Left forward – right backward.” It was confusing. “Your other left,” he would shout.
Most of us were wet and cold before long, but Leslie was smiling and having a good time.
We stopped at an edding pool where the water was smooth and the sun warm. Sysco told us about some “Crazy Texans” (a local term that applies to all Texans) who, with no experience purchased rubber rafts at Walmart and plenty of beer and attempted to run the most dangerous part of the river during spring when the water was high and swift.
“One of them was to be married the following day,” Sysco said. “Poor fellow was never seen again. Search parties couldn’t find him.”
“How awful!” someone exclaimed. I checked my life preserver and tightened the straps.
“About a year later a river runner spotted a piece of cloth wedged against a boulder,” said Sysco.“When he pulled it out a human foot was trapped inside and the shoe still on. It was later determined to be the foot of the young groom-to-be.”
“What happened to the foot?” someone asked.
“His fiancé carried it back to Texas, held a funeral and buried it,” replied Sysco.
“Ohhh, how sweet.” A woman said.
I was doubtful. It was too good a tale to be true.
“Yeah, it’s what you call having one foot in the grave,” Sysco deadpanned.
Now, I was more doubtful.
Sysco let Leslie get out in the water to dog-paddle. I looked down and he was smiling, white teeth gleaming.
“Well, is this a GolleeShazam moment?” I asked him.
“Yes sir, Mister Jerry, it sure is.”
Later, Shannon confirmed that Sysco was telling the truth – the “Crazy Texans” had drowned and only his foot was found, which unfortunately was buried. So, there really is such a thing as one foot in the grave!
To be Continued.