Exploring: Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Chili Colorado.

I made my way into Colorado on I-70; the second leg of my first long road trip. I was alone, wide-eyed and free. I’m glad the roads were fairly empty and that the drivers in Utah and Colorado seem better mannered than those back home in Los Angeles. It afforded me the opportunity to take in all that I could from the car. Every second of it was glorious.

I was making my way to the small mountain town of Breckinridge, where I would stay for several days to explore the surrounding areas. It was August, but the my time in Colorado would turn out to be mostly cold and rainy. I had packed for all weather, I like to be prepared that way.

I arrived at sunset. I stopped at Whole Foods in Frisco, CO for provisions and headed on. After I made my way into the a-frame cabin I had rented, I realized it was so dark. So quiet. I have become so used to city lights and sounds, or even the gentle sounds of the pacific (when I visit Maui) that I found the darkness, the still and quiet environment unnerving. I could feel I was in for a restless sleep. However, I awoke early and ready to start my first day, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.


I will tell you that it was beautiful, in the way that all National Parks are beautiful. Vast sweeps of natural landscapes cast against, in this case, an overcast sky. The beginnings of the Colorado river, historical sites, serene lakes and blankets of green meadows, dotted with wildflowers.

At the highest point in the park, I could still see snow drifts…as well as Cheyenne, Wyoming and a single Bighorn Sheep.

I took in as many beauties as my senses would afford, but still, a sad feeling had crept over me. When you look out into the great forests of the Rockies, one of the first things you notice, is that a substantial number of the trees are dead. At the points I visited in the park, there were some areas that I looked out upon that seemed to have more dead trees, than living ones. I had my suspicions on what could be the cause…which were confirmed later that day. Beetles. Climate change.

While part of me felt like crying at the loss I was seeing, I also couldn’t help but be overcome with a sense of profound and eternal gratitude, for being granted this opportunity in time to witness this magnificent forest while it was still alive. I will keep it in my heart forever.

I got back from Rocky Mountain National Park in the late afternoon, exhausted and ready for sleep, but found myself upon another restless night. There were some oddities to the Air BnB I was in, that perhaps I will post about at a later date. That, along with the still and quiet dark, made me feel a sense of unease. I ended up sleeping every night on the living room sofa, with the tv and several lights on.

Yet again, I arose early for another day of adventuring. Waking up at dawn is not something I do regularly, but when a great day’s adventure is waiting for you to come and meet it, 5:30a really does seem so bad, or even 4:30a when life changing destinations await.

On this day, I would take a lengthy drive that would afford me another opportunity to see more of the great state of Colorado. Great Sand Dunes National Park. Before leaving, I waited until 6am for a local coffee spot to open. I scored a delicious vegan breakfast burrito, an almond milk latte and some great conversation with the guy running Cuppa Joe’s. If you ever find yourself in Breckinridge, CO, I highly recommend this spot.

I embarked quickly after my food and drink were ready, although I could have stayed and chatted with the guy all day. I had a long drive ahead of me, most of which would be through more rainstorms. I ascended up the hill out of Breckinridge into the town of Fairplay, CO—which seems to be the real life counterpart of Comedy Central’s South Park. I wish I could tell you more, but I didn’t have time to stop.

I descended out of the mountains into sprawling, yellow-green fields. The drive went quickly, although I know it was a few hours. I arrived at the Great Sand Dunes National Park to more wonderment. In front of me, were what seemed like enormous mountains. Tan mountains. They looked fake, beautiful fake. As I got closer, they got bigger and more expansive. After going into the visitor’s center, I made my way out onto the the dunes. Medano Creek was unusually full for August. Generally, the creek is no more than an inch by August, but because of unexpected rain, it was flowing and probably 6 or more inches deep in some places. I frolicked with happy families among the dunes. It was cold and wet, but we all seemed to be in good spirits regardless. I cheered on sand sledding children and watched people gleefully roll around. I would have done some rolling myself, but was still so exhausted from lack of sleep, that I saved my energy for some hiking. I took in the plant life, which was plentiful elsewhere in the park, and spotted some cool birds and sweet bunnies. As in many parks I visit, I was really the only one on the trail that day. Another blissful day, taking in the Earth on my own.

On my way back to Breckinridge, I stopped and picked up some Palisade Peaches, which are supposedly, famous in Colorado. The guys at the roadside stand were so sweet. I only spoke with them a few minutes, but something about the way they called me “darlin” endeared my spirit and made me so glad that I had stopped to buy a bag of their peaches—which proved to be some of the best peaches I have ever eaten in my life. I’m from California, the land of endless sunshine, where we can grow anything, so that’s saying something.

I had my last restless sleep in Breckinridge. If you’re wondering why I haven’t spoken more about Breckinridge, it’s because I didn’t really care for the town too much. It’s very beautiful and the main drag of the town is great. Lots of historical homes, great sightseeing, shopping and good food—even some vegan options like aforementioned breakfast burrito. However, I found the townspeople to be generally rude and unfriendly. Save for the gentleman working Cuppa Joe’s and one woman in a thrift store. Maybe it’s because they get so much snow, tons of tourists and so few warm months. Maybe because it was summer and the weather was supposed to be nicer, but the people were sour and it gave me an odd feeling. Up until that point, everyone else I had met in Utah (where I had driven from, more in a future post) and in other parts of Colorado were friendly, welcoming and kind. Like they enjoyed interactions and conversations with travelers and strangers. Breckinridge was the opposite. I can’t explain, other than the town seemed to be all looks and no substance.

There’s more to tell on Colorado, more goodness. But for now, I want to share a different kind of goodness, inspired from my trip. Chili Colorado. Full disclosure, Chili Colorado has nothing to do with Colorado state. It’s a Mexican dish. All the same, they share a namesake. Plus, this chili is stick to your ribs goodness, but still fairly healthy. It would have been a good post-hike meal on one of those crisp days I was there. Hope y’all enjoy.

Chili Colorado:

Ingredients:

4 c vegetable stock or No Beef stock (use Better than Bouillon Brand or Edward & Sons bouillon cubes)

3 dried guajillo chilis, stemmed and seeded

3 dried Pasilla or New Mexican chilis, stemmed and seeded

3 dried ancho chilis, stemmed and seeded

2 bags of Gardein brand Beefless Tips (in place of Gardein, you can also use an equal amount of steamed and sautéed tempeh, died up veggie burgers or seitan—homemade or store-bought)

1 tbsp all-purpose flour ( to coat the Gardein)

2 tbsp Earth Balance buttery spread or neutral tasting oil

1/2 c yellow onion, diced

1/4 c jalapeno, diced

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tbsp ground cumin

2 tsp Mexican oregano, dried

1/2 tsp sage, dried

1 bay leaf

salt and pepper to taste

lime juice

Serve with warm tortillas or rice

Method:

Rehydrate the chili peppers by boiling your stock, and steeping the chilis in a bowl for 20 min.

Heat Earth Balance or oil in a dutch oven or heavy bottom soup pot over medium heat. Coat your Gardein in the flour and season with a small pinch salt and pepper. Cook the Beefless Tips until they start to brown. Remove from the pot and set aside. Add onions and bay leaf to the pot and saute until they start to soften.

Keep an eye on your onions and blend your sauce at the same time. Pour the stock, rehydrated chilis and your diced jalapeño into a blender and puree until smooth.

Go back to the onions, add the garlic, cumin, sage, and another pinch of salt and pepper. Pour the sauce into the onion mixture. You can strain it, but I didn’t. I have a Vitamix which blends very well. If you are using a traditional blender, consider straining the chili mixture through a fine mesh sieve before adding it to the onion mixture. Simmer for about 20 min.

After 20 min, add the Gardein Beefless Tips back to the pot and continue to cook for about another 10 min, until the tips are heated through. Add a squirt of lime juice and then taste for salt and pepper.

Serve with warm tortillas or rice. Remember to look out for the bay leaf if you don’t fish it out before serving.

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