Colorado Gators Reptile Park

This is an odd place. It began back in 1977 when a family opened a tilapia fish farm. The water in the San Luis Valley is heated to 87° by geothermal springs, making it possible to raise the African perch in Colorado.

Ten years later, the owners bought 100 baby alligators to eat dead fish and fish parts. The warm water and rich diet caused the gators to grow faster than they would in the wild, and some of the original babies are still there and huge.Locals kept asking to see the gators, so in 1990, they opened the farm to the public. 

It’s not a fancy place. There’s a decidedly primitive, rinky-dink feel to it all. Brilliantly, they play up the danger everywhere.

In the gift shop, there’s a photo display of the time one of the workers lost a finger to a gator. And there’s this.

The first building housed a whole bunch of snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, etc., most of which had been turned in by people who once thought they would make good pets but found out otherwise. We had to keep stepping over “tortoise fences,” boards that stood all over the place to keep tortoises from wandering outside.

A guy came over to us, reached into a bin and pulled out a three-foot gator named Ali. He explained to us that a gator that size couldn’t bite through a bone, but it could tear off all the skin on a finger down to the bone. Then he asked me if I wanted to hold it. About this time, a second guy walked in and told us that the first guy didn’t work there. 

After he took our photo, he gave us a Certificate of Bravery, although Sally’s name shouldn’t be on it because all she touched was the tail, which wasn’t really all that brave. The guy made  Ali bite down on the certificate to make it official.

A tank of tilapia and other fish. The second guy came over and explained that they had created a new type of fish, a white tilapia. He said that the “rich people in Aspen like the white meat better, although he couldn’t tell the difference.” I wondered how he knew I wasn’t a rich person from Aspen. 

He also told us that gator wrestling class was going on outside if we wanted to watch.  We headed out and found this.

None of the participants—tourists, staff, or alligator—seemed to be enjoying it all that much. The class cost $100/person. We didn’t sign up. Or watch long.

Back inside, we found the place where the tilapia are raised. A series of large tubs contained fish of increasing size. At one point, I overheard one of the staff explaining the operation to another visitor. I understood that they breed the fish, but don’t generally raise them to eating size. They sell them while they’re still small to places that keep them until they’re large enough. But I could be mistaken.

Outside the building, a trail led around several pens. This is Elvis, one of the original alligators brought to the farm as a baby. He’s larger now. 

It was every bit as ramshackle outside as it was inside. There were places where it seemed like a self-respecting alligator could have gotten through a fence. But perhaps they know when they have it good.

We happened upon two pens containing emus, and Sally was befriended by a turkey.

This is Morris “The Movie Star Alligator.” He was in several  movies, including Happy Gilmore, Dr. Doolittle II, Interview with the Vampire, Alligators I and II. He also appeared in the TV show Coach. His career ended in 2006 when he got too large and dangerous. He’s thought to be about 50 years old and weigh about 450 pounds. 

A Nile Crocodile

Albino alligators. They don’t survive to adulthood in the wild. If predators don’t get them, sunburn does. 

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Fort Garland

Fort Garland, in south central Colorado was an active military post for 25 years, from 1858 to 1883. It was built to protect settlers from Indians. Nothing much happened there.

The highlights, such as they are:

  • In March, 1862, Colorado Volunteers trained at Fort Garland, then marched south to join the New Mexico Volunteers. The combined force defeated Confederate forces in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, ending the Confederate’s attempt to invade the southwest.
  • Kit Carson, famous mountain man and scout, was the commanding officer in 1866 and 1867.

The post was so boring that one of the chief activities of the soldiers was tracking down deserters.

Five of the 23 original buildings remain. A sixth building has been rebuilt. All of them house exhibits on life at the fort, the Civil War, and Kit Carson.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves the entire time we were there.

Cavalry Barracks

Outside the Officers’ Quarters when the post was active.

The Main Gate in 1874. Twice.

The Infantry Barracks, with dioramas of the history of the San Luis Valley.

The Sergeant’s Room at the end of the Infantry Barracks.

The view from in front of the Officers’ Quarters.

A model of what the fort looked like in its heyday.

The fort in more modern times, with the town of Fort Garland.

The fort from in front of the Officers’ Quarters. The Infantry Barracks are in the center.

The Commandant Quarters. Kit Carson lived here with his family. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise in the background.

Inside the Commandant Quarters. None of the furniture in the fort is original. There was a case with a few items used by Kit Carson at some point.

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Weekend Trip

Sally and I decided to get away for a few days and explore a part of Colorado we hadn’t yet seen. After stopping at the local Panera for bagels, we drove south on I-25 to Walsenburg. The tire light on the Honda’s dashboard was lit up, no doubt because temperatures had dropped considerably overnight. We stopped at a truck stop and paid $1.50 for five minutes of air. I didn’t use it all, but I was tempted to stand there holding the nozzle until our time ran out. Why should they get to keep air I paid for?

We headed west on Route 160, past the Spanish Peaks. It is a notable feature of this part of the state that the peaks rise suddenly out of the flat plains. 

We toured the Fort Garland Museum in the morning. The town of Fort Garland was a surprise to me. I don’t know why, but I expected an actual town—like Monte Vista or Alamosa, which we drove through later. It was, in fact, a tiny place. I drove from end to end in less than a minute. After we finished at the fort, I pulled off at a rather ramshackle gift shop/tourist trap. The grounds were covered with a dilapidated attempt at recreating an old-fashioned western town. We wandered around inside the gift shop for a bit. I asked the woman who worked there the price of some Navajo rugs. She told me the small one was $800 and the larger one $1,400. She took my question as intent to buy and followed me around for several minutes and pointed out other items and telling me the price. She impressed upon us that her prices were much lower than we would find in Taos, and that people from New Mexico come to her. Perhaps. It didn’t appear that much of anybody had come there in some time. We didn’t buy any rugs, but it made me rethink our decision to let our cats tear apart the ones we inherited from my folks. 

It was lunchtime, so we drove about 30 yards to the only restaurant in town, the Old West Café. We had cheeseburgers, which weren’t bad. The other diners were obviously locals. Our waitress had on a T-shirt that she was very proud of. It said, “Sometimes I laugh so hard the tears run down my leg.” When I asked, she told me where we might see wild horses in the area, but we didn’t see any. We did see Blanca Peak, a 14er in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

We spent the afternoon at Colorado Gators Reptile Park, where Sally made several animal friends. (The black cat was at the gift shop in Fort Garland.)

In the late afternoon, we visited Monte Vista and drove the short auto tour at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. But this wasn’t the prime time of year to visit. Most of the water had been drained and the “wetlands” had been control burned recently.

There were a couple puddles, and we saw a handful of ducks and a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers, the first I’ve seen in 17 years. I don’t think we were in the refuge for a half hour. We did see a large flock of Sandhill Cranes in a mowed field just east of Monte Vista.

Our plan was to eat dinner at a highly-rated BBQ place called Smokin’ Johnnies, but when we found it, it was out of business. It was next door to a Best Western and a drive-in theater. The Best Western advertised that you could watch movies on the outdoor screen from their rooms. But we thought the whole set-up looked like a setting for a horror movie.

Since BBQ was out, we decided to go to a burrito joint in Alamosa, but it was also closed. We ended up at Chili’s where we ate too much. When we were done, it was only 6:00 or so, and we had only an evening in a Hampton Inn room to look forward to. To pass the time, we wandered around Wal-Mart. Really.

This was the view from our motel room the next morning. We had looked at the movies showing at that theater the night before. They were so unappealing that we preferred sitting in our room.

We drove to Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge first thing, hoping to see something interesting. The tour road there wasn’t long either. We did see some ducks, two Sandhill Cranes, and a Coyote.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains loomed large to the northeast. The highest point is Blanca Peak.

After touring Great Sand Dunes National Park, we headed north to Salida (which Siri interpreted as “Saliva”). We were hungry. For lunch, we’d only had bagels that we’d purloined from the hotel breakfast.

But we weren’t this hungry.

After driving through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, I took Sally to see Route 11 up to Cripple Creek. I’d happened upon the road back in 2012 when I was out here for a convention and thought it was beautiful. As we drove through Cripple Creek, the sun set. For a couple minutes, the sky was orange and the mountains were deep purple. We got home at 7:00 after two filled and fun days.

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Pizzeria Rustica

Pizzeria Rustica, in Old Colorado City, is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Colorado Springs. We finally made it on a Tuesday evening after doing some shopping.

It’s not a large place, at least not in the cooler months when the outdoor patio isn’t open. Our table was jammed between the kitchen, the drink station, and another table. When we first got there, it wasn’t crowded.

But soon four ladies were sat at the next table, and the closest one was much nearer to me than Sally was. They weren’t obnoxious, but they talked loudly enough to make conversation between the two of us awkward.

Sally ordered the Rustica, with “crushed San Marzano tomatoes, house-made mozzarella and gran padano parmesan topped with prosciutto di parma and fresh arugula.” I know what about half of those words mean. 

I had the Formaggi e Pollo with “5 cheeses, crushed san marzano tomatoes, local chicken/tomato/basil sausage, red onion, pistachio, rosemary.” Yes, it actually had pistachios on it. 

Neither of them were bad, but they weren’t pizza by our standards. We decided we’d probably not make an effort to return, more because of the tight seating than because of disappointment with the food. We allowed our friendly server to talk us into some ordinary desserts.

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Franco’s Italian Deli is one of the few things I miss about Illinois. It’s located about three miles from my old work. For the last year or so I worked there, I would head to Franco’s at least once a month. 

It isn’t a fancy place. And it isn’t expensive. But it’s amazing.

I always get the smoked ham and Swiss. The key to a good sandwich is good bread, and theirs was the best. I always buy a couple cheese sticks—a flaky pastry with raspberry or cinnamon flavoring and a powder sugar dusting. It’s been more than a year since I’ve been there. It was just as good as always.

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Fall in the Rockies

We headed out fairly early on Saturday morning—to beat the crowds and the rain that was forecasted for the afternoon.  We drove south along the Front Range to Florence, then headed back north along Phantom Canyon Road. There were huge, beautiful banks of fog in the lowlands, and we dipped into and rose out of them repeatedly along the way.

The recent rains had eaten away the banks of the creek, and in places the road was very narrow. We saw maybe 15 cars parked here and there in the canyon, and passed maybe that many more. but for the most part, we had the view to ourselves. The Cottonwoods were turning, and there was color in the bushes on the hillsides.

But the real color didn’t begin until we got up where the Aspen grow.

When we got up to 8,500 feet, we could see the peaks of the Sawatch Range far to the south.

We stopped in Victor for a bit, then headed toward Divide. Two things were immediately apparent: the clouds and crowds had moved in. At 10,000 feet, in Goldfield, we had a stunning view of Pikes Peak, already with snow.

Every wide place along the road on the way home was filled with cars and people taking photos of the colors. Traffic was stop and go through Woodland Park. We had breakfast for lunch at the Hungry Bear, stopped for some shopping in the Springs and were still home by 3:30.

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Downtown Aquarium — Denver

We were in Denver, the weather was lousy and forecasted to get worse. We spent the afternoon at the aquarium.

We were hungry when we arrived, so we went to the restaurant first. We had to wait 45 minutes for a table, I guess because they were short of staff. They certainly weren’t short on empty tables. This was the view from ours.

We waited a long time for our server to show up, and then a long time before our food arrived. This gave us plenty of time to watch the fish in the large tank nearby. Sally ordered fried chicken. I had a noodle dish with shrimp and chicken. Both of us thought the chicken was tasteless, but the rest of the food was good—except for the pile of vegetables on top of mine that just didn’t go with anything else.

Halfway through our meal, a mermaid showed up in the next tank down. Her show lasted maybe five minutes. She would rest at the surface for a minute or so, then dive down, circle, and swim back up. I haven’t tried swimming with my legs stuck together in a rubber tail, so I can’t really complain. Although if I tried, it would give the diners something to remember.

The meal was expensive. Unless you have a strong desire to watch mermaids while you eat, I wouldn’t recommend going. If you do, avoid the chicken.

The aquarium was crowded. All the exhibits were along a single aisle that wound around the building and got pretty narrow in places. We had to make a serious commitment to block other people if we wanted to see any one thing for more than a minute or so. We took our time as best we could and saw everything—patiently waiting and enduring loud OPKs.

We had a very good time. We saw several interesting and beautiful creatures. We were allowed to touch swimming rays. They’re slimy. The Sumatran Tiger looked smaller than the Bengal Tigers I usually see in zoos, and it had longer facial hair. When we finished, we walked outside to the 4D Theater. It was raining, and we had to stand under an awning in the cold, damp wind until the previous showing was over. We’d paid to see a movie on the gannets, sharks, dolphins, and whales that feed off the sardine schools in the Indian Ocean off South Africa. When the doors opened and we headed inside, we found out that the show we wanted alternated with one about Legos. We didn’t want to stand outside for another 15 minutes, so we asked the attendant if we could see both. Since there were so few people there for the Lego show, she said we could. She gave us pink glasses as we entered.

The Lego movie was stupid. In addition, to even begin to understand it, you had to have seen the Lego movie. We hadn’t. The 4D effect consisted of five things — seats that shook, blasts of air on our necks, bubbles that floated up from the front of the theater, a sharp jab in the back, and sprits of water (that I didn’t feel, but Sally said she did.) These rotated throughout the show with little or no connection to anything that was happening on screen. The blasts of air were frequent and particularly annoying. 

The predator movie was more interesting, but the effects seemed to rotate through in the same order and frequency, again with little connection to anything on screen. The blasts of air on my  neck while a dolphin swam through the ocean were hard to figure out. 

It was teeming rain when we left, and we were drenched by the time we got to the car. It was a long, stressful drive home on a crowded Interstate with near-blinding rain at times. 

As for the aquarium, we both enjoyed it. If we’re ever with someone who wants to see it, we’d go back, although we probably won’t visit by ourselves. But we’ll skip the 4D theater and the restaurant.

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The Stone Collection

We are the first people to live in our house that have actually owned it. The original owners bought it as a rental property, and everything in it is builders’ grade. That’s fine. It’s the reason we were able to afford it. And it gives us a chance to make upgrades that suit our style. 

Like the kitchen counters. They are currently laminate, and there are several spots where hot pots have been placed on them and left marks. We decided to replace them with granite. We contacted a guy who specializes in this. He measured the counters and told us what we needed. Our job was to go to the Stone Collection in Denver and pick out the granite slab we wanted.

There are nine grades of stone, 1 (the cheapest) -7, exotic, and super-exotic (which can be semi-precious stone). We were obviously looking at the low end.

This was a little discouraging, because there were some pretty amazing slabs of stone there, and none of them were 1’s. Or 2’s.

But all the 1’s were pretty dull. This was the best of them, and I thought it looked boring. Another one looked like it was made of smashed tater tots.

Sally went back and forth between two or three of them, holding up the drawer from one of our cabinets to see if it matched. I walked all the aisles and looked for a 2 or 3 that matched better and looked nicer.

I found this. It’s called “Suede” and it’s from India. 

At that point, a woman who worked there walked up and asked if we needed help. Sally asked her if she had a good eye. The woman claimed she did, and when Sally held our cabinet up to Suede, she immediately said it was a good match. It was a 2, but it’s also the only thing we saw that really matched our counters and appliances, so that’s good.

We showed her the 1’s we were looking at, and she shook her head. She said they were all builders grade and can be found everywhere. We reserved our slab so the builder can pick it up and cut it to fit our kitchen.

Oh, some of the ones I took photos of … People with more money that we have sometimes buy them and hang them on the wall as art. One last comment about The Stone Collection—they had really impressive bathrooms.

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Colorado-Style Pizza

We’ve been disappointed with the pizza in Colorado. They understand the basic concept—get a circular piece of dough and put stuff on it. But good pizza is much more than that. The sauce out here has no zestiness. It’s little more than tomato sauce.  A coworker who used to live near New York and understands my complaint about Colorado pizza told me a story. A guy moved out here from the east and opened a place that made good pizza. The locals complained that the sauce was too spicy. Wow.

It was with a certain degree of skepticism that we tried Beau Jo’s Pizza. There are several locations, but we visited the one in Evergreen. It came in “mountain” and “prairie,” depending on the thickness of the crust. We went with mountain, of course.

There is a lot of crust. It’s a bit greasy, but tasty. And the rest of the pizza wasn’t bad. It wasn’t up to Chicago standards, but we liked it. 

Sally asked our waiter what made it Colorado-style. He didn’t know. He thought it might be the fact that you’re supposed to dip the huge chunk of end dough in honey. He was from Minnesota, and he thought this was weird. Sally tried it. She likes honey, and she thought it was weird. So skip the honey and just enjoy it for what it is—good pizza by Colorado standards.

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Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave

I never intended to make a special trip to visit this museum dedicated to the life and career of Buffalo Bill Cody, but I knew it was there and figured I’d be in the neighborhood some day. That day turned out to be on our way home from RMNP. 

Cody requested to be buried on Lookout Mountain, above Denver. What you can look out on from the mountain, we don’t know because, when we arrived, it looked like this.

I won’t go into details about Buffalo Bill. The museum was much better than I’d expected. Most of the collection came from an associate named Johnny Baker. When Cody’s own son died, he semi-adopted Baker, teaching him how to ride and shoot. Baker later became a headliner in Buffalo Bill’s tent shows and, when Cody died, his chief memorialist.

Items belonging to Sitting Bull who toured with Buffalo Bill for a few months. The museum made a determined effort to appeal to the politically correct. Yes, Cody killed buffalo, but not THAT many. The species decline was due to the market hunters. Yes, Cody killed Indians, and even scalped one of them. But he fought for Indian rights, and they admired him and were happy to appear in his shows.

I sat on a plastic horse and tried to rope a plastic calf, but after three failed attempts, I settled for my horse’s plastic ear.

We could see if Buffalo Bill ever put on a show in our town. The woman at the front desk pushed this as a very cool and exciting thing to discover.

The grave was just a short walk behind the gift shop. The fog had cleared, but from the grave, the view was hidden by trees and a cell tower.

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