I saw a neighbor who told me the area had gotten six feet of snow in the last month, more snow than we had gotten all winter, as much snow as we get in a “normal” winter. But is there anything like normal anymore when December is warm enough to sit on the back deck, while April delivers walloping snowstorms, one after the other?
So miracles do happen, it turns out. All during this dry winter, every time we got a few inches of snow, hopes were raised that it would be enough to refill the reservoirs, dampen expected forest fires this summer and end water restrictions. And each time the hydrologists and water managers were always quoted as saying something like “we need at least six feet of snow” to end the drought. How could we get six feet of snow in the remaining month or so of the snow season? It seemed impossible.
So I have to eat my words. And yet the effects of climate change—this unpredictable weather—is not something to cheer about. Low water on the Mississippi last winter turns into flood conditions in spring; farmers lamenting dry fields all winter now complain that it’s too muddy to plant. But closer to home, birds such as robins and blue jays died because their food source, insects, were killed in the freezing temperatures that accompanied the cold. Many of our fruit trees won’t have their expected huge blooms. At the cabin, the gophers, which I never see, only their mounds, have had to crawl out of the ground and deep snow to the surface, exposing themselves to predators. Animals and plants expect a certain schedule to nature, and when it is disrupted, sometimes they can’t adapt fast enough.
We can turn on the heat, put on an extra layer of clothing. I can even delight in this beautiful, pristine landscape, snowshoeing in unexpected snow. But the natural world is dependent on more regular seasons, and I hate to see it suffer.
This month it’s been five years since I first laid eyes on my cabin. That day was unpromising and gray with a somber cloud layer blocking the full sunlight. April is the most mundane month in the mountains. The snow has either disappeared entirely or hangs on in mud-encrusted patches, exposing a barren landscape that is a kind of raw brown that makes you ache for something green.
I had been searching for a cabin in the mountains for probably five years but every time I talked to a realtor, the prices were still out of my range. But that spring, a few cabins were finally affordable, and I had been driving around Allenspark and checking them out (with the help of my realtor and friend Shoney, to whom I owe a great debt). Most were either too plain, too cramped, too dark, or too deep into the woods with no views.
I think unconsciously I was trying to refind the Wisconsin cabin of my childhood where I had spent a few weeks every summer with my family, a place where I first discovered a deep love of nature (Thunder Lake, left). As a child, it was a place I loved more than anything, where I felt more at home than my family’s suburban house outside of Chicago.
When I first peeked inside the window of this small cabin in Meeker Park, I saw the same knotty-pine walls of the Wisconsin cabin, the same large stone fireplace and same intimate space—familiar and endearing. It wasn’t until I came back a few days later with Shoney and followed her lead down the road that I realized right above me was Mount Meeker, looming, powerful and enticing.
The thing about dreams is that you’re always afraid they’ll never measure up to reality. Buying a cabin is not an impulsive act; if it doesn’t work out you can’t just walk away from it and decide you’ll try something else. When it came time to make a bid on the cabin, I got cold feet. What was I doing? My sister gave me the best advice: Imagine your life without the cabin. And when I did, it felt empty, disappointing, like something was missing.
How can something be missing that you don’t even know exists? Yet every year at this cabin has revealed something new. Even though I had hiked in the Colorado mountains for more than 30 years, living here, even part time, has shown me things I wasn’t aware of: like the pollen released every June from the ponderosas—a green cloud almost smothering the landscape, or the frogs I hear every spring and the haunting sound of the screech owl across the valley. It’s being here through the night and able to stand on the deck and stare up at the countless stars in a black sky, framed through the tips of the poderosas, and feel like you’re touching infinity.
Here, I’m immersed in nature, not just a day visitor, but one with a front-row seat to unfolding nature: black bears, moose and elk ambling down the road, a bobcat on my front porch, hummingbirds coming to the feeder; pasqueflowers emerging in April (above).
More than that, I didn’t know that I would find a place where my heart could settle, that in this place of peace and beauty, away from the distractions of the world, I could finally settle down with myself, become aware of parts of myself I had long ago buried, and even resurrect them, bring them to the light.
I followed my dream, but I had no idea it would take me so far.
At the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Denver Art Museum last week, I was struck by how her paintings of northern New Mexico looked nothing like the photos of the same places, as shown in the short movie about her life. Of course, great artists take a subject as their own and translate it into something very different from what the ordinary person notices (see Picasso). But O’Keeffe gave these hills a power I’ve never felt, even when in New Mexico and admiring the sculptural and otherwordly landscape of almost barren hills, dotted by a few junipers.
In one painting, she portrayed the gray and black hills near her home in Abiqui as waves of black and gray forms descending to a silver line that coursed through these almost abstract shapes. She took a simple landscape and transformed it into something powerful, something deriving from her own place of courage.
But this painting also comes from more than 30 years of becoming intimate with this landscape. This is not a painting you could create in one day or even a week of visiting New Mexico. You would have to get to know this landscape very well before you could paint it with that depth and power. You would have to sit with your sketchbook or easel in front of these red and russet and gray and black hills day after day, wake up every morning to the light on the hills and go to bed every night feeling their presence.
Every day your connection to this landscape would grow more intense and deep. Every day you would see things you never saw before as you slowly absorb the energy of the hills, the rocks, the sky. After a while the landscape becomes part of you, and what you translate onto the canvas is part landscape and part you.
It will soon be five years since I bought my cabin in Meeker Park, and I get to know the landscape more intimately with each passing week. I see something I’ve never seen before: a cabin tucked in the woods, a certain light on the creek, the shadow of a tree on a boulder, the color of the lichen on a rock. Over time, the landscape has slowly gotten filled in. I’ve followed small ravines up the hills, discovered new groves of aspens, new bends in the creek, experienced every season of the year.
But it’s more than that. It’s as if the accumulation of every moment I’ve been here is experienced in the present moment, so looking at Mount Meeker today I can see the mountain in all its moods and in every season. It’s like O’Keeffe’s layers of hills—memories and experiences piled on top of each other and coursing through me like a river.
I started out my walk from the cabin under gray skies, crossing Tahosa Creek, which is still frozen and smothered in snow, and as I bushwacked my way up the hill, it started snowing hard, obliterating all the mountain tops around me. This was the kind of snowstorm I had been craving all winter, the snowflakes falling fast and heavy, big thick ones so I could almost make out the individual pattern in each flake, almost dizzying in their flight to earth.
But by the time I reached the top of the hill and started down the road, the sun had come out again, as if the snow had been a figment of my snow-starved imagination. The sun felt delicious, and I thought I could smell the earth for the first time since last fall, moist, dense, full of living matter just waiting to spring to life.
Around me, some of the aspen were flowering (above), the soft pussy willows resembling cherry blossoms—this subtle mountain version more delicate than the more riotous outspoken pink on the plains. I read later that aspen leaves and plants that grow more readily in an aspen forest, because of more sunlight, decay faster than pine needles, so the earth is richer with nutrients than under the pine trees. Almost unconsciously I slowed my steps, wanting to linger in this spring-like moment.
But too fast, as I reached the main road, the clouds started moving in again, starting to erase the Twin Sisters peaks to the north (above), and soon I was pelted with something between snowflakes and rain. The moisture descended from the skies with a hiss, the sizzle of life, bringing moisture to these too dry mountains. On the few puddles, the drops created circles, something missing all winter (left).
Back at the cabin, when I went outside to empty the pail that’s catching water from the roof, I realized everything is soaked—my prayer flags, the ground—and water is dripping from all the gutters and roof. It sounds and feels great.
When I go out for a walk, the light is different—fuller, less stingy, more luxurious; even the clouds look different. And I’m hearing new bird calls I haven’t heard all winter. The ground is no longer frozen solid but gives under my feet; in fact, with the melting snow, in places it’s downright squishy. I don’t mind my muddy boots; they’re a good sign. Still, I see almost no one else walking on the roads.
This week, for the first time since October, I was able to sit on my deck, albeit in a place sheltered from the winds and in the sun. The sun still feels good—comforting and not too hot.
And yet, even in this warm and almost snowless winter, the snow hangs on up on the north-facing slopes and in the woods. The creeks and ponds are mostly still frozen, although I’m starting to see openings in the water, like giant blue eyes set in the white snow, and the tufts of dried yellow grass in the meadow are still bowed down from winter’s onslaught. The ground squirrels have not yet emerged from hibernation.
I’ve been carrying snow to the base of my trees, especially the tall ponderosas, from the shaded areas where it hasn’t melted. I have no idea if these small offerings will make a dent in the lack of water they’ve been receiving this winter, but I feel I have to do something, even if it’s a useless gesture.
The weather forecasters are saying it’s too late to hope for enough moisture to end the drought, so now I will have to wait for the whatever comes this summer. In the meantime, I’ll look for more signs of spring.
Finally, we got some snow, only about six inches, but the first substantial snow since December. Is there anything more beautiful than new snow, blanketing and erasing all that brown? I think you can feel the peace and quiet from these photos I took last week.
Left, it looks like the tree is emerging through the snow, like a new plant breaking free of the earth.
Snow smothers the streams, so we get just a glimpse of the water. Everythinng is tinted with blue.
They came here to make a living off the land. A ditch that goes by my place, which I had presumed was built to divert water from the stream for drinking, was actually built to supply water for a dairy, and so I’m trying to imagine cows lolling around in the meadow now filled with willow bushes, ground squirrels and bluebirds.
People told me about their parents and grandparents growing peas, carrots, and potatoes, and raising chicken and turkeys. But how do you get anything to grow out of this rocky soil that has little nourishment even for the pasqueflowers, columbines and grasses?
And somewhere in this small valley a sawmill hummed with the sound of trees being sliced for lumber.
We suit our landscape to our needs. At my beloved Thunder Lake in Wisconsin, as a child, I saw a pure wilderness filled with forests of birch trees and pines. Yet I found out a few years ago that a farmer once raised pigs, so instead of woods across the lake there would have been pig pens.
It was a different philosophy and time, and not so long ago, that saw the land and wildlife to be used for something productive. In Colorado, the deer and elk were killed for food, bears and beavers probably for their coats, and coyotes have always been hated in the West.
Even when tourists started arriving in Meeker Park, sometime in the 1930s, it was a different form of leisure. People stayed for several weeks or even all summer, so families got to know each other, and children from different families played together. Down the road from my cabin, a small grocery store once offered milk, eggs and bread to those tourists, who wouldn’t have had to drive the nine miles into Estes Park for groceries but could spend their days close by, fishing, hunting, playing cards, reading.
I know the landscape will continue to evolve, as climate change turns the mountains dryer and warmer; there will be less water and fewer trees. There’s still not a lot of deer and elk in the valley but now we have moose. Over time, some of the older cabins will be abandoned and bigger cabins will be built. Perhaps more residents will stay year-round, and we’ll get a small grocery store that we can walk to.
I didn’t want to come back to this brown monochromatic landscape of a Colorado winter on the plains, months away from anything being green, where the fields and hills and trees are all brown. In Colorado, it won’t be until April, at the earliest, when I’ll start to smell the earth again, not just the flowers that start blooming but the pine trees, too.
But a few days after I got home, I went for a walk on trail where the grass was yellow-brown, smashed down from months of no water and being tread by cattle, looking dirty and thin. The mood in the skies matched mine: big dark clouds piling up to the west as a storm front moved in, accompanied by a cold wind. Along the trail, the ancient and huge cottowood trees were shaking and rattling in the wind, and my first thought was: I love it here.
I realized there is a difference for me between beauty and wildness, although often the two can come together, like a summer day in the mountains when the streams are full and the flowers are blooming. California is full of beauty—almost a paradise in some ways—but it’s also crowded and noisy, and you almost never get away from people, especially along the coast (inland is probably another story).
Even in a remote a place as Big Sur, where there are no towns and hardly a restaurant, dozens of people wander the beach and stop at the road pull-outs to take pictures of the green hills that drop sharply to the sea. The spectacular sea coast of Point Lobos, south of Carmel, even on a winter day in the middle of the week, was crowded. Near Monterey, every morning I walked a path along the shore, where I saw sea otters, harbor seals, pelicans, 10-foot high turqoise blue waves crashing on seastacks and white sandy beaches. But if I turned away from the ocean, I confronted a row of houses packed together that formed an almost solid line of human structures going from Carmel to Santa Cruz.
In contrast, on the trail last week near my Boulder home I saw almost no one, and the landscape was open, the line of brown rough hills seemingly unpopulated to the west and north. It felt wild, like there was room for my spirit to soar.
At my cabin, I get the same sense of spaciousness and of utter peace and quiet that is rarely disturbed in winter. In these days of little snow, Meeker Park (above, last week) is not pretty in any sense of the world; nothing green, no flowers blooming, most of the birds gone for the winter, everything dormant, the dried grasses bent by the wind and snow and the creeks frozen, while the fierce winds whip veils of snow off the top of Mount Meeker. But it stirs something in my soul, something that isn’t moved by the beauty of California. I don’t know what else to call it but wildness.
Around my cabin are a lot of items that are of no use to anyone, that probably should have been thrown away a long time ago. On the side of the shed sits an old wooden chair (below), paint peeling, the nails no longer quite holding the pieces together, so it’s unusable. And yet I’m loathe to get rid of it; it’s a symbol of something constructed by hand, so it has some integrity and beauty that newer pieces of furniture don’t have. And it connects me to all the previous owners of this cabin. Someone, maybe 30 years ago, built that chair, sat in it, and enjoyed the same view of the Twin Sisters peaks that I do.
On the east side of the house sits an old piece of machinery
that I suspect was for cutting logs. It probably hasn’t been used for 20 or 30
years and in summer is partly covered by wild rose bushes. I know there are
people in this world (some of them relatives and friends) who would clear their
property of anything not useful, who would see these things as eyesores, as junk to be put in the garbage can. But
that old log cutter tells a story: that someone, before the days of chainsaws,
hand fed trees into the machine. It tells me that things weren’t always as they
are today, that people at one time were more self-sufficient and knew how to
take care of themselves.
I’ve noticed that when people sell their cabins, that includes all the items in it, as if they have become part of the cabin and have settled into the floor and walls. Some of the furnishings in my cabin are probably from the original owners: a wooden table scarred by 70 years of use (above), a lampstand carved by one of Allenspark’s long-term residents—furniture chosen by someone with different tastes than me, yet still useful. Upstairs is a Scrabble game someone left behind, just waiting for the right time—a cold winter day with friends and nothing else to do.
In this throwaway culture, where we get new TVs, computers and phones every few years, it’s a rarity and luxury to have items that have lasted so long. And the old chair, the hand lumber mill, the falling down fences (top) and the leaning outhouse have stood not just the test of time but the weather—rain, snow, cold, heat, wind—and have been shaped by those forces. They sit there, an affront to our throwaway culture. Maybe if I hold on to them I can believe that there’s a continuity in life, that I’m connected to all the people who lived here. Or maybe that I can rewind the hands of time to a different era, one that appreciated things that endured.