12-8-19: Meeting the “Southwest” of Colorado

In the Fall of 1973, following my graduation from Hobart, I returned to Colorado.  Yet I was not bound for Denver.  My sister, to whom I wanted to remain close, was not living there.  She had joined a boyfriend in the Colorado mountains.  The two lived in a rickety cabin with an outhouse just outside the town of Alma.  At 10,500 feet above sea level, Alma, at the foot of the Mosquito Range, is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States.  Meanwhile, 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 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.  It was home to ski bums and workers of various skill levels employed at the nearby Eisenhower Tunnel, then under construction.  At 8,700 feet, the town, located in aptly-named Summit County, squatted beside the Blue River while clamped between the Gore and Williams Fork ranges, mountains upon which pile two hundred to three hundred inches of snow annually. 

After three weeks in 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, while vacationing as a kid, were the gentle hills where northwestern Connecticut, southwestern Massachusetts, and eastern New York State meet.  Summit County’s massive, ubiquitous formations crowded upon one another, brooded 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 thirteen miles to and from the town of Breckinridge, elevation 9,600 feet, where I worked 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 afternoon in late October, my sister and her beau showed up in Silverthorne in her ’67 Mustang and invited me to join them for a drive to a somewhat nearby 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 Blue River valley, 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, elevation 11,500 feet; at the summit, I cast a sad eye at a fresh blanket of snow.  From there we descended southeast into an empty, windswept mountain upland known as South Park and the little town of Fairplay.  At an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, chilly Fairplay, a stark fretwork of buildings and scattered, thin aspen stands, did little to lift my mood.  From Fairplay we resumed heading due south, now in the shadow of the massive Mosquito Range cloaked darkly by the Pike National Forest.  It seemed we had traveled through one raw landscape after another. 

Some twenty 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 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, sandy soil.  From this ground, as spaciously distributed as the junipers, grew 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, unchoked by 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, asylum: as “high country” went, this one appealed to me.  Little did I know that I had entered, by many authors’ and geographers’ standards, the “Southwest.”  In a mellow, purple evening, we ate alongside ranchers at a Buena Vista steakhouse, eight hundred very agreeable feet below Silverthorne.  I didn’t want to leave.  I lasted another three months in Summit County.  Then I moved to Denver, my toes black, blue, and aching with frostbite, seemingly refusing to thaw.  But I would remember and return to that land of sand, cacti, dry creek beds, and luminous woodlands.

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