Pueblo, Colorado

April 26-28, 2024.

Photo album

I hadn’t originally planned to spend so much time in Colorado, but several events converged that required us to be within spitting distance of Denver. But it’s expensive to stay there and there are hardly any camping options nearby. Plus, the weather started looking really bad in the area. I looked at the forecast, then opened my Boondocker’s Welcome map to see if anything looked good.

The storms seemed less severe in southern Colorado and there was a host available in Pueblo. I scored a spot there for two nights then desperately began researching what Pueblo, Colorado is all about. It turns out that the city regards their chili peppers as superior to Hatch chiles. That was something to test in real life. Then, I found a bunch of volunteer events for the Great American Clean Up and registered us for trash pickup duty. The weekend was coming together!

We checked in with our hosts, who were very friendly and eager to get us oriented to Pueblo. I was just happy with a quiet, free place to park just on the outskirts of a town.

Thunderstruck

Thunder and lightning reigned all night and into the morning. I emailed the volunteer coordinator to see what would happen to our event. She replied that they had rescheduled the cleanup for the next day, but the afterparty was still happening, so come on by!

We killed some time that morning with a visit to the El Pueblo History Museum. There, we learned about the town’s location being on an old borderland with the same clashes and history of places like southern Arizona. It was/is a place where indigenous Mexicans, immigrants from Europe and people moving west from the relatively new United States all found themselves living in the same place. Violence and oppression rooted in concepts like manifest destiny and colonialism characterized the climate of this region. Being completely unfamiliar with this area, I entered this museum not at all expecting to learn about border conflict. So I was glad we had the time to check it out and fill in more gaps in my historical knowledge.

With another hour or so until party time, we decided to take a stroll on the downtown riverwalk. There we enjoyed interpretive signs about the river system as well as stunning bronze sculptures. I could have sat and looked at the woman with a star quilt sculpture for the whole day without getting bored. Perhaps another day.

The connector

At last we arrived at Walter’s Brewery, another famous institution I’d never heard of, for our not-so-hard-earned pizza and beer. There we met the volunteer coordinator, Susan, who we quickly learned is one of Pueblo’s main connectors. She knows everyone and is involved in everything. As we sat and chatted over pizza, we became fast friends and she adopted us for the rest of the day. Susan drove us to see some of the huge murals painted on the levee that runs through town. She got us into a part of the Pueblo Film Festival (for free) so we could see a few Pueblo chili-focused films. Then, we all went out to dinner at the Cactus Flower so we could try Pueblo’s famous dish, the SLOPPER (it has its own Wikipedia entry)!

What is a slopper? It’s a cheeseburger, smothered in green chili (which usually contains pork) topped with chopped onions, lettuce and tomato. It’s served on top of the bun, open-faced. There are many variations from restaurant to restaurant, but this seems to cover most of the important points. I was really anticipating this after watching the movie about sloppers and it totally lived up to my expectations! The chili on top was to die for, I could have eaten that straight out of a bowl for a week without getting sick of it. The combination of the whole meal worked incredibly well. And I had lots of leftovers to stretch out my slopper into a second meal!

With full bellies, we returned to our van and thanked Susan for an exceptionally full and fun day.

Bike tour

The next morning, we decided we wanted to spend more time along the river looking at the murals. And what better way to explore a long, flat, paved path than by bike! We parked at Runyon Lake, the location for our trash pickup later that day, and saddled up. Under blue skies, we started pedaling towards the levee. The sun felt wonderfully warm as we rode along the bike path. We stopped several times to read the signs, examine the beautiful art and enjoy this lovely day. After a couple of miles, we turned back, circled the edge of the lake and returned to the van. All in all, we got a nice six-mile bike ride in with plenty of time for lunch and a nap before volunteering began.

Trash pick up

We helped Susan unload supplies from her truck. Then, armed with trash grabbers, trash bags and plastic buckets we started walking the perimeter of the lake. It didn’t take much work to find garbage because it was everywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were sitting at the lake’s edge, fishing and hanging out with their families, completely ignoring the trash they were surrounded by (and in many cases, contributing to). There were cups, plastic wrappers, beer cans, fishing line, straws, toys, water bottles, you name it. The trash mostly accumulated along the lake’s edge but there was plenty up on land as well. The whole time we spent filling our trash bags, I thought, what if every family spent 10 minutes on trash pickup each time they came here? The place would be spotless!

I left feeling a bit discouraged and hopeless but I was glad to have made some positive impact. I tried to refocus my energy: on all the volunteers who showed up, on Susan, who easily wrangled in new volunteers from people just passing by, from the park staff person who was so eager and happy to support our work.

One more stop

We said goodbye to the clean up crew, gave Susan a big hug and hit the road. On the way back to Denver, we stopped at Fountain Creek Regional Park. At the pizza party the day before, we’d learned all about Fountain Creek from a guy who just wrote a book about it. So, I wanted to see it in person. This park was absolutely beautiful with trails, mountain views and lots of water. Many folks were out and about enjoying the sports fields, picnic areas and walking routes. I picked a trail and started walking. Eventually my exploration led me to the Cattail Marsh Wildlife Area, which was off limits to dogs, bikes and horses. This meant it was mostly devoid of people too, perfect.

As the sun sank lower into the sky, I slowly walked from interpretive sign to interpretive sign. A few straggling photographers also wandered the wildlife area. We leapfrogged each other a few times, then one woman stopped me to ask: have you ever seen an owl’s nest before?

No, I replied, and she pointed up. I expected to see a big pile of sticks, but what I saw were two huge floofy owlets!!! I could barely contain my excitement. We shared a few minutes together, watching the owls in awe. I asked her so many questions. Apparently she hikes the area somewhat regularly and learned of the nest from another visitor. I do miss having a “regular” park to go hiking, since you really get to know a place that way. I’m a perpetual out-of-towner now. But that has its benefits too, as everything is new and interesting. We parted ways and I finished the trail. Then I quickly texted Aaron to see if he wanted to visit the owls, too. Of course he did and we hiked back together juts before sunset.

What a magical visit to this previously unknown-to-me part of Colorado. I truly enjoy these spontaneous and serendipitous explorations of new places. America is vast and diverse and there is so much to learn here. And in general, people are quite eager to share their love of their home.

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