By Emily Kemme
Odysseys are ignited by an inner flame, each as unique as the myriad reasons why people are spurred to wander in search of what they find meaningful.
A recent odyssey germinated from a Colorado Tourism Office email I received on a morning in April 2021. I’d gotten my first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and sat at the kitchen table, wondering when the pandemic world would be normal enough to travel beyond a frustrating triangle of house—grocery store—post office.
The itinerary, “Muraling Throughout Mystic San Luis Valley,” caught my eye. Murals often tell cultural stories interwoven with subtle social messages. The San Luis Valley murals are a mix of western, Hispanic and Latino themes; the artwork depicts elements of community, social narrative and historical legacy.
Because murals sometimes depict social activism, they are a form of free speech: painted on the exterior walls of buildings, it’s very public art. There’s a risk that an artist’s message may not remain if a building is sold; murals have been painted over in some instances because their value as art on a building wall isn’t appreciated.
Recently, thanks to advocacy by the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project, Colorado’s remaining historic murals were entered on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s most endangered historic places, according to a Greeley Tribune story.
I reached out to a group of college friends, people we’d stayed in touch with over the years through kids’ graduation parties and meeting up to cycle and philosophize over beer—just as we had in those days when we’d hang out in someone’s apartment as students at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
I suggested that the trip offered an opportunity to evaluate the significance of these historic paintings, and the route made it easy to intersperse road biking between driving days.
I soon found that another quest was in the works. Several in our group were devoted fans of the Brewery Explorer app, a way to seek out untasted craft breweries. The app is akin to a grownup version of the Boy Scouts—for each beer goal reached, you’re awarded discounts and badges.
Of the 9,200 breweries in the country, over 700 are in Colorado: That’s a lot of beer to sample.
To me, this quest for beer badges was as equally fanatical as others in the group thought of my mission to analyze public art.
In the spirit of compromise, our odyssey kicked off with the Colorado Brewer’s Rendezvous, which took place in October 2021. The Colorado Brewers Guild event is snugged in between the Collegiate Peaks and the Arkansas River at Riverside Park in Salida.
We sampled until the sun cast a luminous glow on the town and agreed to a late start the next morning. The goal was to arrive by check-in time in La Veta, a town of 916 people nestled in the valley between the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range.
La Veta: Spanish Peaks Country
Our plan was to drive from Salida to La Veta and started biking after that. Along the way, there was beer to be sampled and two breweries marked done on the app in Alamosa—San Luis Valley Brewing Company and Square Peg Brewerks. We’d round back on The Colorado Farm Brewery later, on the way to Creede.
When we pulled up, the La Veta Inn was silent, its nearly 140-year-old adobe walls brooding; there was no one to meet us.
I called the innkeeper and learned that envelopes with room keys were at the front desk, but because of COVID-19, the dining room was shuttered. They would respond to texts if we needed something but otherwise acted as faceless hosts during our stay.
We pressed our noses to the glass door of the dining room and peered in, never learning the culinary charms previous guests had noted. The town had one intermittently open coffee shop, Paradise Coffee—we celebrated that fact with a frothy latte one breakfast. On other mornings, we scrounged up styrofoam cups of cold coffee at the gas station down the road and remained grateful for picnic-style meals we cobbled together from Charlie’s Market, a local grocery store and soda fountain in business since 1937, eating on park benches before hopping on our bikes.
It was the first inkling that following the tourism site’s suggestions for hotels and restaurants might prove challenging: hotels weren’t what we might have chosen if we’d done this on our own, although the selections paid off in quirkiness, like the four-walled mountain mural in our hotel room at the La Veta Inn, which seduced me into thinking I could hear the rustle of wind blowing through the (painted) trees all night long.
Restaurants were often closed due to short staffing and supply chain issues, making it tough to find places to eat. But as my friend Twyla Surritte put it, “There is depth and magic when you’re not distracted with trying to control all that is out of control. It might sound like ‘settling’ to some. But it’s a messy world; perfectly fine can also be liberating.”
We toured the area surrounding State Highway 12, called the “Highway of Legends,” which links Walsenburg, La Veta, Cuchara and Stonewall; it winds through San Isabel National Forest and Lathrop State Park.
We challenged ourselves riding up Soul Crusher Hill, a stretch of the Stonewall Century route. For non-bikers, there’s plenty of hiking and golf at Walsenburg Gold Course at Lathrop State Park.
As you drive (or cycle) Highway 12, marvel at the jagged upthrusts of rock called dikes. These geologic formations form when pre-existing rock bodies fracture, cutting through existing rock.
Stop in Cuchara for the wood carvings and other treasures at Cuchara Country Store, including a jar of proprietor-made chokecherry jelly. A few doors down is the Cuchara Yacht Club—sit and sip a whiskey, wine or craft cocktail and refuel with appetizers, gourmet sandwiches and salads.
Plan for breakfast or lunch at George’s Drive Inn in Walsenburg. It’s some of the best green chili in the state, served smothered on eggs, breakfast burritos, burgers and more.
Antonito and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad northern terminus
Next, drive to Antonito, where you’ll discover the textbook definition of quirkiness, just six miles north of the New Mexico border on Highway 285. The (pot-friendly) Steam Train Hotel could easily be mistaken for a wild west movie set, as could the town’s dusty streets, except for the dispensary taking up a large part of the reception area. But the rooms are clean, comfortable and there’s a pool table where you can rustle up a game.
For a genuine movie set experience, stay at the Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast, the childhood home of Henry Jones, Jr., in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The Cumbres & Toltec steam train was also featured in the film’s opening scenes.
Across the street from the Steam Train Hotel is Dos Hermanas. Go for Mexican plates, burgers, charbroiled steaks, seriously good green chile and a full bar.
Attractions to explore, in addition to the train, include the glittering Canos Castle, a towering structure built from beer cans and other found pieces of metal by Dominic “Cano” Espinoza. The four-story house was damaged by a fire earlier this year; its “King” and “Queen” towers still stand.
To source some quiet, reflective time, drive 38 miles down Highway 142 to San Luis and the Stations of the Cross Shrine. The 15 stations sculpted in bronze by local artist Huberto Maestas dot the mile-long trail as it winds up the mesa. On top sits the peaceful La Capilla de Todos Los Santos.
Walk back to town to see murals painted on several buildings and stop into the oldest business in Colorado: R&R Market, established in 1857, and sold in February 2022 to the Acequia Institute, which plans to convert the market into a cultural and community health hub.
Step back in time in Creede
The final stop is Creede, a historic mining town tucked into a box canyon with an Underground Mining Museum and mine tours. Main Street has boutiques selling home goods, clothing, fine art originals, jewelry, olive oil, mine artifacts, antiques and more.
Mineral County encompasses 900 square miles of pristine scenic wilderness and the headwaters of the Rio Grande and the San Juan Rivers, offering a wide range of outdoor activities.
Stay at the beautifully appointed Aspen Inn, where four suites are decorated around seasonal themes and innkeepers provide fresh baked goods around the clock.
And yes, there is beer. Square Peg Brewerks’ sister tasting room is adjacent to the Inn; for lunch or dinner, head across the street for a gourmet meal at Arp’s inside the historic, and reputedly haunted, Creede Hotel.
What began as a vehicle for reliving our CU-Boulder days with a week of mural-sighting and cycling in the San Luis Valley ended up making our decades-long friendships stronger than ever. Along the way, we reached an understanding: our similarities brought us together in college. As we’ve grown older, we gather in celebration and acceptance of our diversity.
Emily Kemme is a Colorado novelist and freelance writer.
 As of this writing, the La Veta Inn is under new ownership and re-opened in May 2022, including the dining room.