03-Aug-2004 -- As I, Joseph Kerski, was en route to teach Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and GPS at the Mountain Studies Institute Summer Workshop in Durango, Colorado, I
thought it only fitting to visit a confluence along the way. I successfully visited 38 North, 106 West, in
one of the most beautiful places in Colorado, the San Luis Valley.
After driving southwest of Denver on US Highway 285 from 7am to 10:30am for a distance of 275 kilometers, I
entered the San Luis Valley. The Valley lies between the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo on the
east and the San Juan Mountains on the west, at 8,000 feet in elevation. At 22,000 square kilometers, it lays claim to be the largest alpine valley in the world. The San Luis Valley is underlain by the second largest
aquifer in North America, and local ranchers are increasingly under pressure to sell their water rights to the growing cities along the Colorado Front Range. At the eastern end of the valley lies the fascinating Great Sand
Dunes National Park, and the valley includes two natural wildlife refuges. The Rio Grande flows through here
en route to New Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border, and the area is rich in history. An hour's drive south of
the confluence lies San Luis, the oldest city in Colorado. Native Americans and Spaniards explored this area,
including Coronado and de Ulaterri; the latter claimed the land for Spain in 1708. In 1806, Zebulon Pike, after his
discovery of Pike's Peak, entered the San Luis Valley not realizing that he was on Spanish soil. At Pike's
Stockade near Alamosa, he was captured and taken prisoner to Santa Fe.
I drove south on Colorado State Highway 17 to the community of Moffat. On the south end of this agricultural
service town, I turned right on an unnamed Saguache (pronounced "Sa-watch") County road. I quickly realized
that I was on the road bearing to the northwest instead of west, and finding no roads to the south, I doubled
back to town. This time, I took the road running due west. I traveled on a road as straight as an arrow, a section-line road, past fields of crops and livestock.
Agriculture has long been the basis of the economy in the valley. As the valley receives only 20 centimeters
of precipitation annually, crops are grown using irrigation water whose source is the snow in the nearby
mountains. Principal crops are potatoes, alfalfa, hay, wheat, barley, and vegetables. After traveling west
for 8.2 kilometers, I stopped the vehicle at the side of the dirt road, made sure I had the necessary
equipment for my confluence trek, and plunged into the unknown.
The "unknown" in this terrain was a field of bare soil dotted with grasses, prickly pear cactus, and sage. It
was hardly a wilderness, within plain view of a ranch home to the northeast. However, the field had been left
alone for quite some time, lending it a somewhat wild look. In the past, cattle had obviously grazed here,
and it probably was farmed as well. The GPS gave 600 meters as the distance to the confluence on a path almost due north from the road. I scaled one barbed-wire fence. I kept one eye on the GPS and one eye out for snakes and cactus as I walked along. At 10:45am local time, I arrived at the confluence.
Due to the treeless terrain, I had no problem zeroing out the GPS unit. Much of the San Luis Valley is flat,
and the confluence site is no exception. The land drains toward the southeast according to the maps. Therefore, the confluence site must slope ever so slightly toward that direction, toward the Rio Grande. The GPS gave a reading of 7598 feet (2315 meters) above sea level. The valley boasts 320 sunny days each year, and this is mostly another one of them, though punctuated by brief periods of cloudiness. The temperature was 30 degrees C, already becoming warm, and winds were steady but not too blustery. More mosquitos lived at the confluence than I had expected, plus a beetle and some red ants. I could see fewer than 5 dwellings from the confluence. The population density here is quite low.
In Fall 2003, I had visited 106 West, just 1 degree north of here, at 39 North in Central Colorado. In Spring
2003, I visited 38 North at 113 West in southwest Utah. After spending about 25 minutes at the confluence, I
hiked back to the vehicle without incident. I proceeded west on the road that turned into County Road T, then to US Highway 285, and on towards Durango. It was indeed a fine way to begin the Mountain Studies Institute.