Joshua Hardin

On the morning of Alamosa’s annual 5k fun run, a few hours before the runners arrive at the starting line in Cole Park, Jeff Owsley inspects the race course and finds it covered in a sheet of ice 10 inches thick. Perfect.

After all, the name of the race is the Rio Frio 5k on Ice. The race course is the Rio Grande. Deep-freeze San Luis Valley winters turn the famous river into a ribbon of ice winding through the heart of Alamosa. By late January, the ice is normally strong enough to withstand the pounding feet of 200 Rio Frio runners. The thick layer of snow atop the frozen river keeps it from getting too slippery.

Owsley, the third-generation Alamosan who invented the Rio Frio 5k on Ice, believes it’s the only footrace in the United States where participants run on a frozen river. Perhaps that’s because Alamosa is one of the few places in the nation whose climate – colder than Juneau, Alaska – seems custom-made for such a thing.  

“It’s one of the coldest places in the nation, but it’s one of the sunniest places, too,” Owsley said. “We decided to take advantage of that.”

The Rio Grande magically transforms itself into a race course each winter, but its greatest magic trick is the one it performs on the San Luis Valley each summer. That’s when the river, along with its tributaries and the aquifers they feed, transforms the driest part of Colorado into one of the state’s most bountiful agricultural districts.

Nearly all the potatoes Coloradans buy in the produce aisle come from San Luis Valley farms just west of Alamosa, in Monte Vista, and a major portion of the malted barley the Coors Brewing Co. uses to make its beer comes from the valley’s huge barley crop. The harvest is even more impressive when you realize the valley is a desert that gets nearly an inch less annual precipitation than arid Phoenix, Arizona.

That Alamosa is in the middle of a desert seems blatantly obvious to people worldwide who know the city as the gateway to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the sea of sand that lies 20 miles northeast of town. The Great Sand Dunes are the windswept remnants of an ancient lake bed, but they look more like the Sahara Desert took a vacation to the foothills of Blanca Peak in south-central Colorado, fell in love with the place and decided to move here.

Spanish names dominate the map in the San Luis Valley: San Luis is Spanish for “Saint Louis,” Rio Grande means “big river,” and the trees along its banks are the namesake of Alamosa, which means “cottonwood grove.” Many San Luis Valley natives are also native Spanish speakers. Yet, neither they nor their ancestors ever crossed the U.S.-Mexico border – the border crossed them. 

Alamosa resident Dennis Lopez’s ancestor Atanacio Trujillo homesteaded south of present-day Alamosa in 1847. Southern Colorado was then part of Mexico, though that changed the following year, when the nation’s defeat in the Mexican-American War forced it to cede its northern territories to the United States. And just like that, the San Luis Valley was north of the border, and Lopez’s family became Americans. 

As a boy in the 1950s, Lopez and his friends were all bilingual, speaking Spanish at home and English at school, but when he went beyond his western San Luis Valley hometown of Capulin, he saw that Spanish speakers often were treated like second-class citizens. Many sought to avoid discrimination by abandoning Spanish in favor of English. 

But Lopez, who spent decades teaching Chicano studies in Alamosa schools, refuses to let Spanish die in the valley. He helped found Adobe de Oro Concilio de Artes and the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area to preserve the valley’s culture, especially its Spanish dialect. People in the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico speak Spanish much as conquistador Juan de Oñate spoke it in 1598, when he led the first group of Spanish pioneers to settle just south of the valley in what’s now New Mexico. 

Lopez and many others in San Luis Valley are direct descendants of these settlers, who lived for centuries at the remotest fringe of the Spanish Empire and spoke the same archaic dialect long after it had evolved into extinction everywhere but here. People around Alamosa still speak Spanish with conquistador-era conjugations and vocabulary, borrowing a few new words picked up from American Indians, French trappers and, much more recently, Anglo newcomers, including those who came on the iron horse.

For the rest of the story see the January/February 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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