Why Dirt Road?

Ric at the summit of Imogene Pass. Telluride, CO
Ric at the summit of Imogene Pass. Telluride, CO

Why Dirt Road Journal?

The short answer is because my family loves to get off road and have an adventure. But there’s a lot more to it too. We are adventurous souls. Being on the road of life pushes boundaries and comfort zones, and adventure makes new rules and breaks old ones. That is is where real living is.

And sometimes, we have no choice, adventure finds us. Life is that way.  It happens, and how we respond to it is our choice. We can engage with courage and a sense of curiosity and self-reliance, or we can sit at the bottom of the mountain and cry at the steepness of the summit. Life is in the climb. Traveling gives us practice climbing. Traveling off road gives us tools and stories, experiences and love for tackling new and unknown life.

Sometimes off road is a new cafe, or a practicing a foreign language, or trying new food. It could be taking a hike for the first time, visiting a world heritage site or sitting in meditation.

Being in those places is sometimes like scare-your-socks-off, and sometimes it is pure and simple beauty that makes you cry. Life is funny and scary and when you’re on off-road, it is also pure. It is the place where my husband is truly himself, and where we work together in pure fun. It is the place where anything pretentious dissipates and where presence is profoundly cultivated. Of course, the 1,000 foot drop on the passenger side is a friendly reminder to stay present.

In the last decade, my family has driven hundreds of back country roads in New Mexico and Colorado. These photos and video (forgive my video-editing skills or lack thereof) give you a small glimpse into one way we cultivate presence and find ourselves through adventure. Most often my husband drives, my son navigates, and I document. We’ve driven the highest roads in the country, and they are magnificent! And we all look at roads like Devil’s Punch Bowl and think, “holy moly, how will we navigate that doozy?”

Yes. Hell yes, we’ve gotten stuck, many times. We’ve had to turn around, and a couple of times we’ve had to ask people for help. But I always think, “well, it is only a days walk to the closest town. That’s do-able if anything were to happen.” And really nothing does. Nothing we haven’t handled at least. One time the car died. One time we flooded the engine driving through water too deep. One time we were stuck in a mud bog. But we’ve always gotten through it, and in the end we have a great story and a satisfying day. Even if my finger nails are gone at the end of it.

Life in general is much the same. Sometimes it can be nail-biting. Sometimes we get stuck, really stuck, and need to ask for help. Sometimes we can recognize that it is a short trip back to “normal” and just go for it.

So this blog…not so much about dragging your truck through the mountains, as expanding your mind and body by traveling to places off your beaten path. Finding your own off-road adventures to open your hearts and mind.

That’s why this is the Dirt Road Journal.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.






Hot springs on hot days: Hooper Pool

SD Pool 2“Hooper Pool,” officially known as the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool, feels like it sits back in time. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never see it, but it is sure not to be missed. In the sand and the sagebrush, two miles off the highway, 20 miles north of Alamosa, sits the sparkling warm waters, complete with high dive and hot water slide. The artesian hot spring-fed pool is a fun day trip in the sun.

In the 1930s in southern Colorado they were drilling for oil near what is now the Sand Dunes National Park. Instead of oil they struck water. Hot water. They found a naturally hot artesian well, one of the deepest in Colorado. And they built a pool around it. During that time, Hooper and the surrounding towns were bustling with wheat production. The railroad was in full use and the area was booming. The pool became the public swimming spot for years after. Those early visitors swam in the dirt-covered board pool. And today that pool is still there, known as the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool. For a bit in the eighties, the pool was home to catfish, but was renovated in the early 90s and re-opened. Photos of the original pool and its renovation are posted in the gift shop.

My family and I immediately loved the place. There are views of the Sand Dunes, and the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountains. The hot artesian well water fills the 150,000 gallon pool at 118 degrees and the pool’s temperature is maintained between 98 and 102 degrees. There’s a kids pool and a soaking pool. Fellow swimmers take breaks to play sand volleyball, tetherball, horseshoes and enjoy a picnic. Daring divers practice their flips on the high dive. Kids enjoy making their way down the hot water slide. Lunch is delicious at the Mile Deep Grille, and you can enjoy an ice cream treat if you bring your own lunch.

Hooper is about 20 miles north of Alamosa, and the road is marked by a sparkling watery billboard. The Sand Dunes Swimming Pool makes a great day trip from Taos with the family, and on the way home you can detour to the Sand Dunes for an extra treat.

This post was originally posted on www.livetaos.com if you’d like to visit the original.

SD Pool 4 SD Pool 5 SD Pool 6

Old tomboy mine and her brides

As I travel the backroads of the west and explore the past of the old roads, the stories take me to other stories and yet other stories.  The first time I traveled Imogene Pass out of Telluride, Colorado I found such a story.  The Pass itself is magnificent.  The road is a sight, and to know how it was driven more than 100 years ago makes it an even more humbling experience.

Near the top of Imogene is Old Tomboy Mine.  An old mine that at one time supported a town with a YWCA, a school and a bowling alley.  The remnants are not in the best shape compared to many of the old mines around, but I found an autobiography that made this adventure one of the best.  Harriet Fish Backus recorded her time at Tomboy Mine with her husband, an assayor, in her book, Tomboy Bride.  She and George Backus travelled Imogene to Tomboy Mine in 1906.  There, she and her husband braved avalanches, packrats, isolation from deep snow, death,  and the dangers of mining.  She writes about birthing and raising children at 11,000 feet in the winter, and maintaining a household with constant snowfall that left them buried in 20 feet deep.

She writes as though it was yet another day, challenges like I face raising my son, caring for my husband and making an evening meal.  As I stand in Tomboy Basin, after driving up Imogene Pass, somehow I cannot bring myself to her moment.  She describes such happiness, amongst the fury of the snow, horses and men falling to their death from the road, a friend being shot, whooping cough, flu and meningitis. She finds such joy in her home, while its interior is four feet deep in snow. She was a truly courageous woman, thick skinned, loving and amazing in her hearty-iness.

She describes pink eye, colic, and teeth infections. Not so different from any mother’s worry, and yet in such harsh condition. I admire her so. Standing in the basin surrounded by summer wildflowers I think that her strength and beauty to endure among the jagged ridge of the basin summit is something from women past.  And I hope somewhere being up here, I can capture bits of it to carry on.

The road to Imogene Pass
Tomboy Mine remains
Imogene Pass Summit
Imogene Pass

The Beauty of Pearl Pass

Pearl Pass Summit

Pearl Pass, Colorado, near Aspen, at a summit of 12,705′ .

Cira 1872, miners from Crested Butte built a make shift road from Crested Butte over Pearl Pass to the mining town of  Ashcroft, and eventually made the road to Aspen.  The road is one of the most difficult we driven. The boulders, the steepness, and the scree fields are abundant.  So is the beauty. Its long and amazing views are surrounded by 13ers and 14ers. It was a beautiful day we drove, and we didn’t see another vehicle until we made it close to Ashcroft.   There are not many mining remains on the trail; not many people lived up there.  It was a thorough-fare between Crested Butte and Ashcroft, but just the thought of it being passable more than 100 years ago is quite an adventure.  It is famous for its hardcore mountain biking, but frankly, everything up there is pretty hardcore.  If you adventure up that way, make sure the road is passable–it was clear for us, but you can certainly see areas where the snow would never melt.  And remember those who came before us, and paved this road for us; they were certainly a beautiful and adventurous sort!

Circa 1910
Circa 1910, Pearl Pass Trip lunch on the road

Ghosts at old mining boom towns are worth the pass (if you’re up for an adventure)

The 1870s around Silverton and Ouray Colorado were a boom with silver and gold speculators.  If you’re an adventuring type (and have the right vehicle, or enjoy the long hike) the history, views and treasures you’ll see in the mountains around this area never seem to end.  There are remains of old mines and old mining towns dotting the mountainsides, and ghosts (if you believe in the them) hang out in the trees with you for lunch.

My family and I spend a long summer weekend exploring every year and never get tired of driving and climbing around the mountains getting a better understanding how our pioneering neighbors survived at 12,000 feet in the winter, and how their dreams of a better life encouraged them to travel over extreme mountain passes with massive machinery into beautiful valleys to build their lives.

I’ll post a few individual posts on some sites, like Tomboy Mine and Mary Murphy Mine, both of which deserve special attention because of their amazing and beautiful stories.  Most recently my family came across Ashcroft, Colorado, a ghost town near Aspen via Pearl Pass, which I’ll try to post an individual story on as well.  But in total, months of exploration of southern Colorado ghost towns and mining culture exposes a rich and adventurous people who came into a unknown wilderness. Much of this spirit I think still shapes our rural west.  As we drive these old roads and turn a corner into a scree field or a valley, I often wonder how a woman birthed a child or baked bread for her family in these conditions; how a man tended his horses and hauled firewood to maintain some warmth at the altitude.  It is a humbling experience to arrive at these towns in our Land Rover; I wish I could meet the women who did it horse and wagon.

If you’re up for an adventure, the old mining sites are a sight and worth understanding the boom and bust of the late 1800s and early 1900s in our history as you adventure Engineer and Cinnamon Pass.

Engineer Pass (a central point of the old west mining activity: and you need a four-wheel drive to get here!)
Hotel at Ashcroft, Colorado (Ghost Town near Aspen)
Chute at Hurricane Pass
Mining machinery at Mineral Point
Alta; Ghost town near Ouray, door of cabin the boarding house
Frisco Mill circa 1905

La Veta: A treasure nestled in the breasts of the earth

La Veta is nestled at the base of the Spanish Peaks, two mountains at the southern most border of Colorado near I-25.  The Spanish Peaks have been among the most important landmarks of the southwestern United States, guiding Native American tribes, trappers, and American settlers.  The Ute, and other, earlier Indian tribes held the Peaks in religious awe and named the mountains Wahatoya, meaning “Breasts of the Earth.”  The first recorded Europeans to explore the Spanish Peaks region came north from Santa Fe in 1706, 100 years before Zebulon Pike discovered Pikes Peak.  The Spanish Peaks were important markers to early Spanish explorers, probing routes over Raton and Sangre de Cristo passes northward into the Colorado interior.  In 1822, Mexico’s independence from Spain opened the markets of Taos and Santa Fe to American traders via the Santa Fe Trail.  As I travel from Taos to Denver, this is always a stopping place for me.

Among the most unusual features of the Spanish Peaks are the great dikes that radiate out from the mountains like spokes of a wheel.  When the molten magma was rising in the Earth it moved through vertical cracks that you can still see today–jetting out along the road to La Veta.  These walls of rock are often spectacular in height and length, and are known to geologists world wide. They are a unique feature of the landscape around the Spanish Peaks.

And further into the valley, the treasures are even more worthwhile.  The Spanish Peaks are 13,000 feet, and they are surrounded by others similar in majesty, Trinchera Peak being my favorite. Trinchera Peak is 13,517 ft, and has magnificent views in all directions.  We arrived early in the morning and the wildlife was so beautiful.