Quick getaway: The giant alligators of the San Luis Valley
For visitors, Vail is a spring vacation dream. For locals, it’s the perfect time to hit the road and avoid the crowds. Here’s one of the Vail Trail’s favorite quick-and-easy getaways partly because it’s tropical, and partly because we get to take part in one of our favorite spring rituals: wrestling alligators.HOOPER, Colo. — Two thousand feet beneath the hard-baked sage flats of the lower San Luis Valley is an underground swamp, a subterranean wetland charged with hot water from the planet’s core, forced upward through fissures in the crust of the earth.Allowed to rise at its own geological pace, this swampland could theoretically transform the San Luis Valley into a sub-tropic, banana-bearing Amazonia sometime in the far distant future.But if you think like Jay Young, you want your Amazonia now!. So you drill a well and pull water up to the surface, where it comes out of a PVC pipe at a nice warm, bathtubbian 87 degrees Fahrenheit.This may conjure images of hot springs, sulfur smells, and naked hippies washing their bandanas between sips from the communal jug.But that’s not the case in Hooper.Here, at the Colorado Gator Farm, hippies are referred to as “gator chow” — and the weight of your average catfish is around 70 pounds. Most of the things that grow in the waters around here can chew your arm off if they feel like it, or perhaps unhinge their jaw in order to swallow you over a period of months.Neither option is very appealing, but walking around among these creatures in a tropical atmosphere can certainly fulfill that strange, post-ski season craving for warmth that so often goes unfulfilled among the broke and hardworking. The beauty of Hooper is that it’s only about three hours away, so getting there is a heck of a lot cheaper than getting to any other tropical locale.And, as one visitor put it, “It’s just one of those place you can’t drive past twice.”That’s especially true because Colorado Gators is located along Highway 17 in one of those bizarre places in the West where the military could test H-bombs and there’s a good chance no one would notice. The surrounding terra firma is very terra, ultra-firma, flat and covered entirely by dirt and scrub.But the alligator farm is an oasis (of sorts) amid the heavy winds and high elevation of the San Luis Valley. Reality immediately begins to warp just past the threshold of the hangar-sized buildings at the gator farm, where everything is warm and stinky, if not downright fishy.Blame the fishiness on the talapia. They’re the ones that started the whole thing. The hardy tropical fish makes good food, and it survives pretty well in 87-degree bathtub water. Selling the fish to restaurants went well for a while, but asking employees to dispose of accidental dead fish made for a turnover problem.Rather than hire all seven of Hooper’s residents to carry away the dead fish, the folks at the gator farm hired a few alligators instead. Pretty soon the gators became an attraction in themselves, and about four years ago someone got the bright idea of charging admission.Now nearly 35,000 people a year visit the farm, and this year they began offering gator-wrestling classes (recommended as a gift idea for someone you really hate).Looking for a spring break change of scenery, change of pace and, in fact, change of reality? This is it! q
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