Crestone, Colorado

The town of Crestone is refreshingly confusing. It refuses to be bucketed into a “genre” of town – it is something completely new and different.

Crestone sounds like live reggae music floating through the streets, accented by windchimes and children laughing.  But there’s some quality to the air here which makes it somehow feel silent, reverent.  

To my left are impressively rugged mountains and to my right is a never-ending flat plain.  The sky is emotive and the air is crisp, thin, and clean.  Strangers on the road smile and start up conversations, as if nothing in the world could be more natural. 

I pass a man standing beneath a tree, who gives a friendly hello.  He reaches up and picks an apple, then offers it to me.

“Thank you,” I say, surprised at this random act of generosity.

“I’m sure the owners won’t mind,” he replies with a chuckle.

The quaint little town is built around a central park which is filled with people sporting dreadlocks and homemade macrame jewelry.  They’re the kind of people that used to be a common sight in the Colorado of my childhood.  Live musicians play reggae classics while women sway in long skirts and children play in the grass.  People quickly recognize that I am a visitor and greet me cheerfully, asking what brought me there.   I couldn’t dream up this kind of utopia if I tried.

“What are you all celebrating?” I ask.

“It’s the Dark Sky Festival,” someone replies.  “Make sure you look at the sky tonight.”

A woman in a Bohemian dress offers me a sticker.  “The best place to go star-gazing is the Ziggurat.”

“I’m definitely planning to stop by while I’m in town,” I reply. “It looks fascinating.”

“Crestone has a festival just about every weekend; it’s just our way.  We always find something to celebrate.”  

Another man says to me, “You exude an energy that is wild, yet down-to-earth.  It’s lovely.”  He is smiling genuinely and looking me in the eyes.  He is not joking, nor does he seem to be hitting on me.  

“Wow… thank you,” I laugh nervously.  I am not used to such openness, to receiving compliments from strangers.  In Dallas no one talks to me unless I’m in their way.  

But the citizens of Crestone welcome me with open arms like a long-lost family.

Every small, colorful home has Tibetan prayer flags draped over the entrance.  Spiritual structures emerge from every which way, representing just about every world religion.  Ashrams, monasteries, temples, retreat centers, stupas, labyrinths, and even a ziggurat.

I must see the Ziggurat, of course.  It’s what Crestone is known for (well, along with the UFO watchtower and local 14ers).  

Ziggurats date back to the ancient Mesopotamians: names straight out of the Bible like Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians.  These structures are scattered throughout the Middle East and enshrouded in mystery.  The architecture varies but all were made from bricks, include steps ascending to a top terrace, and were painted bright colors. 

Little is known about how ziggurats were actually used, but it is clear that they were religious in nature.  Some ancient texts indicate ziggurats were built to be the dwelling place of esteemed gods.  Others suggest their purpose was to close the gap between the heavens and earth: to elevate humanity to within reach of the gods.  Most Biblical scholars believe the Tower of Babel was a ziggurat built for the god Marduk.  

The Crestone ziggurat was commissioned in 1978 by Najeed Halaby as a gift to his wife.  Halaby was a Dallasite of Syrian ancestry, whose daughter famously became the first American woman to rule an Arab country upon marrying into the position of Queen of Jordan.  

Sitting serenely atop the tallest hill in the area, the ziggurat is a striking landmark that is visible for miles across the plains of the San Luis Valley.  The spiral structure has been painted yellow, which is an apt choice as the word Ziggurat means “light pinnacle” in Assyrian.

I decide I will watch the sunset from the ziggurat and then perhaps stargaze afterwards.  I park the car and am greeted by a comfortable breeze.  In the Crestone way, the air evaporates the sounds around me and a thick but pleasant silence fills the air.  My dogs are loose because I’ve been told they can be, and no one else is around.

I swat a mosquito from my arm.  My skin is coated in bug spray but the mosquitos here seem immune to it.  More descend on me and I try to ignore them, channeling my inner yogi.

The path to the ziggurat is sand – a reminder that the Great Sand Dune National Park is just a short drive from here.  I walk the spiral to the top of the ziggurat, where I have a 360 degree view of the Sangre de Cristos, the sand dunes, and the San Luis valley.  It’s golden hour: perfect timing to capture this serene and picturesque moment.

Up to this point I’ve been alone, but then a man walks up the other side of the trail.  He’s dressed in what looks like a bee keeping uniform.  He has every inch of skin covered, including hands and face.  He’s wearing a hat with a bug net that comes down around his face.  As he approaches, he waves in a friendly manner.

“Might wanna put some long sleeves on,” he tells me as I swat away more mosquitos.

I realize the bugs are getting worse.  I snap one last photo and then begin to run back toward the car.  Even in constant motion, the mosquitos are landing and biting.  They are much more aggressive than I’ve ever known a mosquito to be!

I unexpectedly catch sight of an elk on the side of the hill.  It’s a majestic animal in a spectacular location – with the ziggurat above it and a mountain backdrop.  The elk is looking right at me and I want to stare back… but it’s a fleeting moment.  The dogs are still off-leash and though they don’t see the elk, it sees them and immediately bounds away.   

I pass more people on the trail wearing that strange but effective anti-bug uniform.  They watch me run past in my tank top and shorts, flailing wildly at the plague of insects descending on me from the sky.

I dive into the car and slam the door, before realizing plenty of mosquitoes have already made their way into the car.  I yank a sweatshirt over my head and continue slapping at the horrible things all the way back to my Airbnb.  It is an ironic end to what was otherwise a serene visit to Crestone.

I leave Crestone with a new awareness that life can be better.  It turns out that people can be kind and generous.  They can live in harmony with the earth, maintaining a reverence for the natural world.  The roads can be quieter, the air cleaner.  The experience of Crestone has given me renewed hope for a better world.

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