By now, after eleven years, my daily drive home should pass by in fifteen uneventful minutes, nearly without notice, with what was once a colorful and adventurous tour of the Front Range of the Rockies having turned grey through routine and repetition. By now I should be able to use this time to plan something new, or review something past, or ruminate on aging or fester over some irrationally perceived insult. I should be able to multi-task. It happens to all of us, this fading perception and loss of wonder at the world around us. My drive from Santa Barbara to Ventura along some of the most beautiful coastline in the country often became obscured by unruly thoughts about work and life and semen-stained dresses, kicked under the desk in the Oval Office.
But this short drive has not faded to monochrome, but rather remains as vivid as an erotic dream or one about falling or fleeing. I can only pay attention and be present. The call of this place is that insistent. It makes no sound when it calls me, but I cannot hear anything else.
Every day I am re-grounded and re-positioned by my journey home, from the Great Plains of the American west to the Rocky Mountains, all in four-and-a-half short miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain. I am like an altimeter being re-calibrated or a PC cold-booted. All my synapses and connections and reference points are restored to their original factory settings.
Mine is a daily journey that spans cultures: from flatland farmers, coal miners, ranchers, shopkeepers and plains suburbanites to mountain lunatics, hard rock miners, recluses, eccentrics, dope growing magicians, artists and hilltop athletes; from horseback riding buffalo tribes to those who wandered the mountains, gathering berries and boletus and hunting deer; from the mathematical city grid to winding dirt roads following the contours laid down millions of years ago before we learned to count.
But more than that, my commute is an emotional journey, from confinement to freedom, from risk to warmth, from predictability to the wonder of randomness. From being alone in an often-threatening world to being alone together with the one I love.
The soundtrack for my drive home is Ravel’s Bolero, gathering texture and power as we climb. Or maybe it is Bono and The Edge building Where The Streets Have No Name to an ecstatic crescendo. Or Rodrigo’s adagio within Concierto de Aranjuez softly then cinematically mounting the ridges and mountaintops.
The trip begins as I pass the last stop light from here to Steamboat, just steps from the homeless shelter, the National Guard armory and the strip joint. I regard the little businesses near this gateway to the mountains and our home as being safe for us. We can slip down from the hills, undetected, and venture a mile, maybe two, south on Broadway, knowing we can always make a run for it, back up the canyon. Pete’s liquor store, Julie’s average breakfast, Logan’s fine coffee, Felix’s delicious pupusas, Matthew’s easy pastas, dry cleaning, grocery, even Bill who made our rings: all are a safe distance from our mountain sanctuary. And, if we find ourselves trapped too far down the street on the prairie, or vigilantes block our canyon, loyalty oaths and religious tracts in hand, with head-phoned podcasts playing, chasing us as they shout Roger Ailes’ mantras, “Stop the socialists! Poleaxe all populists! Decimate the “small D” democrats!, we can still sneak up Linden and come in the back way into Wagon Wheel, or in the worst case, go the long way ‘round through Wall Street and Gold Hill, down Lickskillet and safely home.
But I leave all this and the prairies behind me now, and wind sensually into the ever so feminine folds of Four Mile Canyon.
Anywhere to the west of here, we would call these hills. Eastward, they’d be formidable mountains, all the way to the Alps I suppose. These hills would be a big deal in Vermont or Ambleside or Provence. But to the west our hills are eclipsed by spectacular ranges and peaks twice as high, snow-covered all year, glaciated and intimidating, with names we all know. Moisture makes all the difference too. Our seven- and eight-thousand-foot hills are often bare of snow in winter. In the Sierra, they could pass as a respectable ski area, sometimes under a dozen feet of snow. In the Cascades, forget about living here or even getting here in winter. These canyons of Four Mile, Six Mile, Left Hand, Sunshine and the peaks and ridges they dissect are not listed as biggest, longest, greatest or deepest in any atlas. But these places have served humans faithfully for thousands of years, long before any Spaniard discovered that someone else got here first, and then made up a far-fetched story to save face with his queen.
Once through the invisible mountain gate, the land stands up its skeletal ridges of exposed rock, clear evidence of some long-ago upheaval, leaving valleys and canyons and arroyos beneath. Karen and Clyde live up the creek to the left. I spoke with them both after the fire. They would have been in harm’s way before our place. None of us had too much to say.
These lower reaches of the canyon would be easier to defend, and would favor the indigenous forces over those of the state or corporation or church who, after so many years, still do not understand how to defeat dug-in locals. I would position wind warriors up there high above the opening to the canyons and more of us over across on the other side behind the rocks, and I would place water warriors hidden down along the rocky creeks. We would communicate without sound or electrical impulses; rather, images and songs would appear simultaneously in our minds’ eye. We move up and down without effort, using only our intentions and love, and we disappear when necessary. Without weapons we move with the fox and deer and bear and big cats, confounding our pursuers who beat hasty retreats for the familiarity of town and tavern, far from the tormenting daytime visions they encountered in our mountains.
Within a quarter mile, the road hooks hard left and sharply uphill, hugging the rocky ridge-side through what Dave and Melinda call “Dangerous Curve”. When it snows and becomes icy, this is a barrier some cannot pass, with two-wheel-drive rigs elegantly but hopelessly sliding backward, coming to rest against a railing while others plunge through in a vertiginous freefall. The deer casually cross the road here and we often flash lights to warn each other that our more feeble-minded neighbors are grazing through and to be extra careful, even though they are only a bit brighter than the rocks they climb.
Cyclists too fill the roadway, rain or shine, at nine degrees or ninety. Through the curve they are both moving their slowest uphill and nearly their fastest down. They are much savvier than the deer and rarely are struck by a driver texting his pizza order to Proto’s.
I immediately feel the lift of the land, like being in a hot air balloon, the road rises so steeply. From the flat, limited-dimension view when I am down on the plains, now I see a huge sky with soft lenticular clouds moving east next to me, like sky-sized Chinese character brushstrokes alive and shifting.
I get glimpses of peaks beyond ours and back behind me the vast emptiness of the prairies to the east, all the way to Kansas. Three dimensions turn to four, with geologic time lay bare in bony red spines poking through the trees and brush. The palette is dozens of shades of red rock, green trees, blue sky, brown earth and white clouds and snow.
The first day we drove back up here after the fire was frightening. We’d been evacuated a week and truly had no idea what to expect. Around each turn I held my breath hoping not to see what we had imagined. The mountains and forests inhale and exhale on timelines we cannot fathom, far longer than our limited life spans. They give us life in terms of water and fuel and food, and sometimes their lives are temporarily taken. This is only tragic from a narrowed perspective.
Climbing further I reach a false summit, and with it, that sensation that comes when the view opens further and I feel like I am on top. So many years of climbing up hills and peaks and that sensation is now become visceral. The saddle between the Four Mile and Six Mile creek drainages is open and pastoral, with horses grazing on both sides. To the south I can see the sides of the Flatirons. At night this place is completely dark, with only the glow from Boulder over the south-facing saddle. George Lamb’s barn is down to the right, just above where Six Mile breaks through the ridge to continue on to meet Left Hand Creek, off on its journey to the Platte, Missouri, Mississippi and south to the Gulf. Just below his place is another tricky curve, this one nameless so far, though I suggest the less-than-poetic “Icy Curve”, as the sun never shines here and the black ice occasionally consumes cars.
Right away we begin to climb again, meandering under over-hanging trees, past Chris’ place on the left and the hundred-acre piece, still for sale, adjacent Harrison’s. The Ponderosa Pines have been hard hit by beetles of late, and dead ones can be seen everywhere. At the crest of the road the view opens into lower Left Hand Canyon, where I can see tailings from some of the 500 hard rock mining sites that sprouted in the county in 1860 and continued until 1920. Miners extracted gold, silver and tungsten and left what EPA calls a “Zone 1” area with the highest possible levels of radon, a “Group A” carcinogen. I don’t know Group 1 from Group W or what zone I prefer to be in, but I assume this means radon is a nasty customer and is pretty effective at making us sick.
I wheel off the pavement onto dirt and usually push it a little on the small curve in the road, saying, “power slide” to myself. From here I can see the plains clearly and it feels safe, with our backs to the Western Divide, facing east, vigilant for intruders. Two fires ago we did this all night, with an intruding firestorm down below us on Old Stage Road, gobbling up acreage and moving insistently our way. The cops were a half-mile away, mandating evacuation. We loaded up and slept with our boots on, ready to run.
We face south and have an expansive view across Six Mile Creek Canyon to the tree-covered, north-facing ridge opposite. Our ridge is bare by comparison. We removed over sixty trees since we’ve been here, due to beetle infestation. With so much sunshine here, it is always bright, but I love the stormy days too, when the mists move up and down in front of us, creating Chinese brush painted scenes with trees and rocks partially obscured then brightly lit, then obscured once again. The wind is formidable and my only real nemesis. I respect its usefulness, but on those days when it threatens to take the paint off the house, I would prefer to be elsewhere.
Visitors most often stand and stare across to the opposite ridge, reaching for words. Chinese friends have affirmed what we knew from the beginning, that our feng shui (wind / water) is excellent. This is apparently true as I watch our guests sink into the magic of this sunlit ridge.
Being here and getting here are the best parts of my day. We have so much of our lives invested in this place that I feel like one of the firs, bracing against the wind, shivering in the cold and snow, basking in the sunshine, reflecting on our life when it is calm and absolutely silent, knowing where I belong. We have laughed and cried here, been inspired and nearly crushed, left to flounder and buoyed ahead by hope, hard work and fearlessness.
Sandy has created a jewel box home for us, a work of art and a comfortable container for living, a safe and solid and warm storm shelter against the winds from the west and those from the shadows. We held our wedding, two big birthdays, at least one wake and more assorted dinners and parties than can ever be counted. Rico is buried on the ridge where we can keep an eye on him and more of us may be planted out there in time.
This is our home for now. This is where our love is. This is where our life is.
The wind is howling outside and every so often there is a boom like a tree falling. A storm is coming from the west, tumbling down on us from the Divide. We are the first line of defense.
But summer is also coming, and with it, long warm days and gentle afternoon rains, sunset lighting the sky until ten, with lightning and thunder helping make sure we are awake.
This place is temporary. We are temporary. Change endures.
And then, as quickly as the winds rose, it is calm. A hawk glides down the canyon without movement. The winter sun slips over the ridge to the west. The house creaks and settles.