Matt and I spent the month of July traveling around the Northwest in our camper van. We saw so many beautiful places and it was a truly amazing trip. However we also like to travel REALLY slowly sometimes. We balanced out the busy travel of July by spending the entire month of August in one place.
During our two years of living in Denver, we discovered a magical place in southern Colorado. The Orient Land Trust is a 2200 acre area of protected land. It is in the San Luis Valley, nestled up against the mountains. The views are spectacular. Warm water comes out of the mountains and feeds into pools that you can soak in. One pool is big enough to swim laps and the sauna has a pool IN it. Deer, hummingbirds and fireflies live there. Hiking trails are everywhere. There is an abandoned iron mine that is now home to 250,000 Brazilian free-tail bats and every night they all flight out together. The Land Trust includes a ranch which grows vegetables irrigated with the spring water. All of the power comes from a hydroelectric plant that is also part of the Land Trust. The spring water also flows into a reservoir which is home to 2 species of endangered fish. The whole place is clothing optional so you literally can frolic in the woods naked. Cell phone and internet service are extremely spotty. There is a limit on the number of people who are allowed to visit each day so it never feels crowded. To quote one guest “if there is a nirvana, I think this is what it would look like.”
We volunteered at OLT for the month of August. I was a Discovery Host which meant that I worked at the welcome center. I gave orientations to new guests and kept the shelves stocked with Colorado-made snacks and souvenirs. Matt was a Camp Host. He did a lot of parking policing and made an evening campfire. He also enforced rules, mainly related to unattended dogs and noise. In exchange for approximately 4 hours of volunteering 6 days a week, we got a free campsite and full use of the facilities. In truth, I generally worked less than 4 hours and Matt generally worked more.
Part of the reason that we wanted to volunteer is that we wanted to give back to a place that we love so much. The Land Trust has a mission to protect and preserve the area for future generations. This is a mission that we really support. We have appreciated having access to such an amazing place while living in Colorado and we wanted to help other people have memorable experiences.
There were also some benefits for us. Normal paying guests are only allowed to stay a certain number of days each month but as volunteers we could stay for 5 whole weeks. I love to travel slowly and I think it is so important to make sure you spend longer periods of time at the places you love. Stay long enough to see it change, whether that means the coming of a new season or a whole new set of visitors. Stay long enough to gain some understanding of the rhythms that make the place unique. Experience days of good weather and bad. Don’t feel like you have to cram everything in because there is plenty of time. Give yourself time to see the things that might not be on a schedule, like wildlife.
Another benefit of both volunteering and staying at place for so long is that you get to know it in a more intimate way. After having visited so many times as guests, we were excited to see more of the behind the scenes action. We got to know more of the staff and regular guests. There were all sorts of interesting people both living in the area and passing through. Sitting in hot springs with strangers late at night, you hear all sorts of stories. One of my favorites was from one of our regulars who lived nearby. He had a bear break into his house, knock over a propane refrigerator and burn the whole thing down. He, of course, was soaking in a hot spring during the incident. On the other hand another guest bragged about riding wild mountain lions when he was a toddler, which definitely was not true. Perhaps the heat and altitude were affecting his sense of reality.
We also got to explore the San Luis Valley more. The nearby town of Crestone is home to 22 different spiritual centers. Many people go there for retreats and spiritual study. We visited the Baca Grande area and saw some Buddhist stupas that looked like they were straight out of the Himalayas. We also visited the picturesque Ziggurat, which is also known as the Stairway to Heaven. We enjoyed finding our way there on streets with names like Enchanted Way and Graceful Court. Back in Crestone we went to the Elephant Cloud Coop and the Crestone Brewery, which had excellent berry kombucha on tap.
Volunteering can also provide very affordable travel opportunities. We got full use of the hot springs for free. We also got a free spot for our camper van, with electricity hook up. Normally we would have to pay $70 per night to camp and use the facilities. We didn’t fill up our gas tank once and generally had few opportunities to spend money. We spent less during the month of August than we have any other month this year.
Overall it was a very positive experience but there were some challenges. Neither of us enjoy having to enforce rules and tell people what to do. When we used to come as guests we were happily oblivious to some of the situations that staff and volunteers deal with. Most people who visit OLT are wonderful and responsible but there was the occasional difficult guest. We also got tired of people not cleaning up after themselves. We were constantly amazed at the stuff that people would lose or leave behind (cowboy boots, whole sets of dishes, expensive books). There was a communal kitchen area and there were some people who seemed to think that someone else was going to wash their dishes for them. I suppose you probably get people like that everywhere.
We felt like 5 weeks was the perfect amount of time to spend at OLT. It was also our final month in Colorado and we were fortunate to be able to spend that month at one of our favorite places. Living in a van for 10 weeks has been really fun, but we are excited to live in a house again.