Front Range Triptych
I. Storehouse of the West’s Great Passing
On the last Saturday in February, on a day just warm enough for the task at hand, my sisters and I, with our partners and parents, met in Greeley, Colorado, to empty mom and dad’s storage shed. Inside this rented 10 x 25-foot metal space lay 40 years of dad’s old survey papers and plats, along with Christmas decorations, furniture, and other forgotten cast-offs from a home where they no longer lived.
Rolling up the doors on each end of the unit, we took stock of the boxes of once important household goods left behind for some future need that never came. We would each load our trucks with donations and a few family remembrances before we left. But first, everything else would have to go to the landfill, including the archive of dad’s work as a surveyor for this prairie town in view of the Rockies, a city now grown, for we who had lived in this sleepy town as children, incomprehensibly large as the county seat and hub of oil and gas production.
But Dad had seen this coming for decades, since moving to Greeley in the early 1960s for his new job as a land surveyor. In his postcard home to us from the interview trip, he wrote, “Sure a big place,” at least compared to our tiny North Dakota town. The boxes of bound logbooks, each labeled with survey names in his precise handwriting; the meticulously drawn plats certified with his looping signature and surveyor’s seal; and the maps from which he navigated the rural and mountainous terrains of his career, all told the story of development’s incursion into the natural landscape of the historically indigenous lands on which this once small, rural community on the eastern edge of the Front Range had been built.
No one wanted these papers. We had no room to store them and no further reason to do so. The information they contained was already part of official records in the county courthouse. We had no need to preserve any of it, except as an artifact of settlement’s imprint on this once wild, then agriculturally cultivated, region. It seemed too late to look to the past. The sprawling growth in Greeley with its traffic was one reason I avoided coming back there. But when my parents left the town five years earlier, I asked Dad if he was happy to go. “Greeley’s been good to us,” he said.
As I stood before the boxes, all I could see were the hours of Dad’s labor, the job that took him away each day, and the money with which he supported our family. I had already decided to take a survey plat with his signature from the pile of Mylar records in the oversized box. Now I took other things: two yellow logbooks with survey names I recognized from years ago; a boundary sign abandoned at a remote site; a book on barb wire styles for his collection of unique pieces found on his excursions; even the burnished wood tripod on which he’d set his instruments for calculating the elevation and grade of the land. The rest I helped load into the trucks for the dump, where they’d be bulldozed into the monstrous wasteland that stands as an ugly memento of a more densely inhabited West.
I felt sad to see Dad’s papers go because I knew the pride he felt in his hard work of so many years. But I also felt sad at the realization that what the shed contained was one more history of the ecologically catastrophic settlement of the West, along with the heartbreak of losing the same wide-open spaces by which it had been defined. This shed contained a microcosm of the human impulse to destroy what we cherish most, which was also the paradox of Dad’s chosen career. Each of the surveys he completed with painstaking care represented another death of the untethered land he loved. Tripod over his shoulder, he had become both witness and instrument of its passing.
Driving home, my partner and I took the back roads, a habit I’d inherited from Dad, who had learned to drive on dirt roads because that’s all there were. As we headed out of Greeley, we knew that going south and west would get us home, even if we didn’t know exactly which roads to take. Driving through the country, once farmland now dotted with oil wells, we came to a dusty hill that obscured our view east. In the distant west were the mountains, with no town in sight between. “We’re really in the boonies,” I said.
But as we crested the hill, we encountered a shiny new subdivision creeping across the prairie as far as we could see. Housing had come to the back roads, bringing jobs for a new generation of surveyors like my dad to record another era of development across these grassy plains. As we crossed the interstate, I spotted a pair of bald eagles at the top of a towering cottonwood spared, for now, from the paving of a commuter parking lot, two more sharp-eyed witnesses to the passing of the West.
II. Daredevil at the Red Rock Edge
We stood at the edge of the red rock wall, looking down into the dark reservoir thirty feet below. Neither of us had jumped into Horsetooth before—or off any cliff near this towering—although we’d heard of others doing it when the water was high. How high, we weren’t sure, but the waterline beneath the rim seemed high enough to us. We figured we could easily clear the rocks from the precipice where we paused to consider what we’d do next.
Lisa and I had driven from our small town of Greeley, Colorado, to Horsetooth Reservoir expressly for this purpose: to jump and live to tell the tale.
Just getting out of town made a red-letter day for us. We hadn’t had our licenses long and hadn’t driven this far—thirty miles toward the mountains—by ourselves before. We hadn’t asked permission to drive here, either. Named for the nearby chisel-toothed mountain, Horsetooth was a six-and-a-quarter-mile-long body of water enclosed by natural rock walls that formed the western boundary of Ft. Collins, the neighboring liberal college town to our more conservative ranch community where nothing much happened, especially that summer.
With Dylan or the Dead in the cassette deck of my old Dodge sedan, Lisa and I took the highway west to Loveland, the small town gateway of the main canyon leading to Rocky Mountain National Park. From there we drove north and west to the last paved street in Ft. Collins, then up the steep dirt road around the reservoir’s end in search of the jump-off we’d heard gave a good rush and a cool-down on a hot afternoon, a place where the wild horse of our hearts could run free.
We didn’t know it then, but the sandstone buildings of a former quarry town called Stout lay in the depths of the reservoir, its residents relocated before Horsetooth was dammed in 1949 to provide municipal and agricultural water for Ft. Collins, Greeley, and other Front Range towns and farms. The water we drank every day came from this reservoir that had seemed so far away.
Now here we were in our cut-offs and tanks, peering down into the murky water, deciding whether it was safe to jump or whether we’d be crazy enough to do it anyway.
And then she stepped off the edge, just like that, my daredevil friend who always went first. I watched her drop straight down, toes pointed, arms crossed over her thin chest. She didn’t flail or kick but plummeted like a javelin thrown from the clouds into the water, staying under just a beat more than I was prepared to wait before she emerged, waving up at me and swimming to the ragged shore.
I took a breath. Now I had to jump too. I’d never been the daredevil she was, but I could make a good second if I let her take the risk first.
Why do I remember watching Lisa jump more than I remember jumping myself? Forty years later, it’s Lisa I see, not the impact of the cold water I feel, not the coming up for air or the swim to the shore. I don’t remember both of us climbing back up to the car but I do remember her waiting for me down below. And I remember us laughing that we’d done something pretty stupid and survived.
Just how stupid we found out a couple months later. Some guy hit a rock hidden under the water and died. The water level was lower then, we told each other. He shouldn’t have jumped when it was so shallow. We were still too young to acknowledge the role of luck in what we’d done. After that death, cliff diving at Horsetooth was outlawed.
Our high school adventures continued, fueled by substances, savvy, or both. We graduated and didn’t talk much about what came next. Lisa was the kind of friend to whom you never said good-bye because you figure you’ll see them again until, one day, you don’t. She married and headed to the Northwest. I went to college in Ft. Collins and hiked Horsetooth, but never near that cliff.
Before our tenth reunion, I found out from another friend that Lisa was dying of breast cancer. I never knew whether she received the card I sent to her before she died. Now I’m the one left to tell the tale. The red rock edge of luck had caught up with our wild horse hearts and, once again, my daredevil friend went first.
Years later my travel route intermittently took me past the ice cream stand where Lisa and I stopped for cones on our way home. I never drove by that Dairy Freeze without thinking about her. I’d followed Lisa that day because that’s what teen friends do. But I never would have taken the lead. I had a stronger sense of self-preservation, always. I didn’t mix reds with blues. I may have leaped out of a moving car on a country road when I didn’t like the way the driver was driving, but Lisa jumped first. I watched her hit the ground and roll, and then I followed.
III. Eye of the Season
As if Covid-19 weren’t enough of a challenge for a small, community-supported farm like ours, summer drought and autumn wildfires brought more deer to our land than ever before as they followed the river down from the mountains to escape the smoke and forage our fields along the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range. Early in the spring, we welcomed the few graceful deer eating cover crops as they passed through the corridor of irrigation ditches that cross our land. But as the season went on, we drew the line at losing spinach, zucchini, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Even as we fenced and netted one crop, the deer moved to another, until everything but repellant onions and garlic needed protection from their roving tastes.
Toward the end of September, a new herd of three does, four fawns, and one buck with youthful antlers took up residence in the fields. They learned to jump over or crawl under our fences and wouldn’t move far when we tried to chase them off, looking at us with eyes both innocent and wary, waiting to see what kind of threat we posed. Suggestions of guard dogs or hunting licenses didn’t fit our way of living on the land. With only a few weeks in the season to go, we hoped that nets and fences would at least dissuade them from eating everything.
While John and I struggled with deer, a wilderness fire north of our farm grew into the largest wildfire in Colorado history. Our crew was already wearing masks in the field to protect each other and our farm members from Covid. Trying to talk through my mask left my throat raw as we distanced in the fields. Masks were especially uncomfortable in near-100 degree temperatures, even into September, and smoke didn’t help. Some afternoons the air quality was so bad, we stayed inside, but before an unlikely snowstorm in mid-September, we spent two long days harvesting grapes, tomatoes, and peppers in the worst smoke we’d seen yet. Surely, we thought, things will get better now, but the snow only temporarily stopped the fire from spreading. By October, it had grown to 200,000 acres as it moved closer to our farm.
The morning of October 17, a friend emailed that he could see a smoke plume to the southwest of us. In the morning’s hectic harvest, we didn’t think much about his message, working as quickly as we could to get out of the high winds. I noticed fewer members picking up their shares than usual, but didn’t connect it to the fire until the afternoon when I observed not only a huge plume of smoke rising from the foothills to the west, but a long line of cars traveling east on the highway in front of our farm. Evacuation had been ordered for parts of the area, while the major road to Boulder had been closed. Tourists and residents coming down from the mountains had to drive past our place to get out of the smoke and away from danger. With our farm lying just outside one evacuation boundary and a dozen miles south of the other, we were now in the middle of two very active fires.
We kept our eye on the evacuation map all afternoon and realized that many of our farm members could not even get to the farm for their shares. We sent a message that we would keep the barn open until further notice in the hope people could come in the next day or two instead. After a hurried dinner, we started packing our vehicles in case we needed to evacuate, a decision that felt eerily similar to seven years earlier when we had faced another emergency situation from flood. Then, the floodwaters from unprecedented rainfall were already sweeping down the canyon through the river across the highway from our farm before we knew what was happening. We couldn’t have driven out but instead would have walked north across the foothills to higher ground. Luckily, the waters had receded by the next day and we didn’t have to leave.
Now, we packed two vehicles with cameras, flash drives, instruments, jewelry, cash, and necessities for a week, leaving our main computers to grab as we went out the door. As I packed, I looked around at my books, art, and family heirlooms, feeling sad that they might be lost. Remembering a friend’s documentary about the crazy things people take when evacuating, I snatched a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and a new t-shirt for my grandson that I just couldn’t bear to leave behind.
After the sun went down, we remembered the tractors. Could they better survive a fire parked in the meadow between two irrigation ditches rather than in the old wooden tractor barn? It was worth a chance. Wearing his flashlight hat, John went out to move them while I refreshed the evacuation page. We were still just outside the boundary and the wind had died down. Maybe we wouldn’t have to leave after all.
“You’ve got to see this,” John said as he came in the house. We walked out to a bridge that gave us a clear view through the trees. Above the dark foothills, a fiery dome burned high into the sky. We could also see the lights of emergency vehicles parked on a hillside. Were they setting a perimeter or helping with evacuation? I gave a silent thanks to those risking their lives to make sure the rest of us stayed safe.
“Now come see this,” John said. We walked further back toward the meadow, the green beam from his hat lighting our way.
“Turn it off,” I said. “It’s too bright.”
“No, we need it to see them.”
And there were the deer, still and alert in the meadow by the tractors, their eyes gleaming in the flashlight’s glare. In the watchful night, I was glad once more for their company as we waited to see what happened next.