Meeting the “Southwest” of Colorado

In the fall of 1973, following my graduation from Hobart, I returned to Colorado.  Yet I wasn’t bound for Denver.  My sister, to whom I wanted to remain close, wasn’t living there.  She had joined a boyfriend in the Colorado mountains.  The two lived just outside the town of Alma, in a rickety cabin with an outhouse.  At some 10,500 feet above sea level, Alma, at the foot of the Mosquito Range, is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States.  

Several mountain ranges away, a college classmate of mine lived in a combination of bedroom, living room, and kitchenette in a former motel in Silverthorne, Colorado, and he invited me to join him.  Today, Silverthorne is a wealthy high-country playground serving several nearby world-renowned ski areas, including Vail.  In 1973, however, it was a dusty, muddy settlement containing a few trailer parks, a bar, a liquor store, and a convenience store; home to ski bums and workers of various skill levels employed at the nearby Eisenhower motor vehicle tunnel, then under construction.  At 8,700 feet, the town sits beside the Blue River, clamped between the Gore and Williams Fork ranges, mountains upon which pile 200 to 300 inches of snow annually.  (With climate change, however, these quantities will likely lessen.) 

After three weeks in aptly-named Summit County, I realized I didn’t like mountain living.  The dearth of culture was one reason.  I missed Denver’s museums, libraries, book stores, and public parks.  I missed a place where something other than alcohol, sheet rock, tool belts, pickup trucks, and canine behavior could be discussed.  The lay of the land disagreed with me, as well.  Prior to Colorado, the only “mountains” I’d known were New York State’s Catskills and Massachusetts’s Berkshires, both ranges rather modest.  Summit County’s massive, ubiquitous formations crowd upon one another, brood over the towns, cast long shadows at morning and in the evening.  Daily I felt as if my existence was in their vise.  Above all, I disliked the weather of the dwindling high-country fall.  I was without a car, so five days a week I hitchhiked in frigid mornings and chilly evenings 13 miles to and from the town of Breckinridge, where I worked every day outside as a construction laborer.  Meanwhile, I dreaded the approach of my first mountain winter.  Everywhere I looked I saw towering ranges, each relentlessly cloaked in dark, mordant pines, each poised to breed raging snowstorms and deliver blasts of bitter cold.  Is this all there is to the storied Colorado high country? I wondered. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t. 

One Saturday in late October, my sister and her beau showed up in Silverthorne in her 1967 Mustang and invited me to join them for an afternoon and evening drive to a mountain town, heretofore unknown to me, named Buena Vista.  Recalling “Espinosa” and “Mares,” I liked the name of that town immediately and, always anxious to flee Silverthorne─the name alone seemed to draw blood─agreed to go.  We lowered the Mustang’s convertible top, bundled up, and drove southward. 

We drove through the valley of the Blue River, beneath the grim, gray peaks of the Ten Mile Range.  We drove up the switchbacks, convoluted as intestines, of Hoosier Pass to the Continental Divide; at the pass’s summit, 11,500 feet, I cast a sad eye upon a fresh dusting of snow.  From there we descended southeast into an empty, windswept mountain upland known as South Park, containing the little town of Fairplay, a stark fretwork of buildings, powerlines, and scattered, thin aspen stands.  From Fairplay we resumed heading south, now in the shadow of the massive Mosquito Range cloaked darkly by the Pike National Forest. 

Some 20 miles south of Fairplay, however, as Highway 285 noticeably descended, we entered a different landscape, one of gentle hills.  The hills were not dark with impenetrable stands of arrowy conifers and spruce.  They were instead dotted with evergreens of some sort─I would later identify them as juniper trees─that stood no taller than two or three times my height and often granted each other a generous measure of space.  And the ground beneath them was not smothered beneath ferns, mushrooms, dead pine needles, and rotting wood; rather, it glowed in the late-afternoon sunshine with a fine, sparsely-vegetated soil.  From this ground, as spaciously distributed as the junipers, grew stunted cacti, the first I’d ever noticed in the wild.  Meanwhile, the land was webbed with what appeared to be streambeds, but they were waterless, free of choking willows, and filled with what appeared to be bone-dry sand.  Although I knew we weren’t in the classic North American arid land of a Dristan commercial, the word “desert” entered my consciousness for the first time in my Western experience. 

As we continued our descent, progressively warmer air bathed the convertible.  When we emerged from this strange fold in the land, a valley huge beyond imagining appeared, and a slender, golden line of trees threaded through its depths.  “The Arkansas River,” my sister, referring to the thread, explained for my benefit.  And the spectacle didn’t stop there.  Just beyond the valley, there exploded a mountain of equally stunning proportion.  “Mt. Princeton,” announced my sister’s boyfriend, “Fourteen-thousand feet above sea level.” 

Warmth, light, space, majesty, refuge: as “high country” went, this one appealed to me.  Little did I know that I had entered, certainly by some authors’ and geographers’ standards, the “Southwest.”  In a mellow, purple evening, we ate alongside ranchers at a Buena Vista steakhouse, 800 very agreeable feet below Silverthorne.  I didn’t want to leave. 

I lasted another three months in Summit County, and one in neighboring, bitter-cold Park County.  As Annie Proulx wrote of a poor French woodcutter experiencing his first winter in New France’s boreal forest, he “learned he had never before experienced extreme cold nor seen the true color of blackness.”  Then I moved to Denver, my toes black, blue, and aching with frostbite, seemingly refusing to thaw.  (Due mainly to my imprudence: The boots I wore to work were too small, inhibiting circulation, which, thus, aided frostbite.) But I would remember and return to that land of sand, cacti, dry creek beds, and luminous woodlands.

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