In grade school, history bored me: a bunch of long-dead presidents, long-forgotten battles, meaningless laws. It was only when I came to the West and walked the streets of an old mining town, toured opera houses where singers entertained miners and visited Pueblo villages that had existed for centuries that I felt the weight of history.
The history of Meeker Park is considerably less important but no less meaningful to me. I want to know who came before me, what happened here, all the different lives and different ways of living. One of the places that’s in the forefront of history here is Big Elk Ranch (below), a several mile long open park between the mountains about eight miles east of my cabin.
Starting in the early 1900s, an enterprising farmer and businessman opened a dairy in this wide valley, had a herd of 65 cows (where elk and cattle now companionably graze) and kept the milk cold with ice cut from Copeland Lake (now at the entrance to Wild Basin). He grew root vegetables, lettuce and peas, which he sold, along with the milk, in Estes Park, to the tourists just starting to flock to this resort area.
He also owned a resort on the North St. Vrain, now Shelley’s Cottages on Hwy. 36, which attracted Teddy Roosevelt and Al Capone, among others. Yet today, Shelley’s Cottages are barely a blip to drivers rushing to their destinations in Estes Park. Time speeds away from us.
Last month, I finally saw the ranch, which is spread out in a spacious meadow. Two large barns, their boards polished by a century of wind, snow and rain, plus several smaller sheds, were a testament to the once large size of this enterprise. I was hiking with my neighbor John, who hadn’t been here for 10 years. He and his wife, before her illness, used to hike this all the time, knew the people whose houses we passed. They had visited the retired professor and his wife who lived in a house, probably built in the 1960s, with a large two-story window facing the meadow. She played the piano, and I imagine the music spilling out into this lush green valley.
Farther up the road is a house, now in disrepair, where a pilot once lived, who flew his small plane into this remote valley; if you look hard enough, you can see the outline of the airstrip. Past a pond, the road dips down to another ranch, seemingly abandoned, with a long silent tractor exposed in the barn, several outbuildings and a house that looked recently vacated: lawn chairs and a barbecue grill sitting on the porch. The story became apparent when we found that the road had been ripped away by the floods last year—the owners separated suddenly from their home.
But the gem of this valley is the pond. Its blue waters pull together and reflect the circle of this meadow: the hills that encompass it, the aspens around its edge, the huge bowl of the sky filled with swiftly passing clouds. Sitting by this unruffled surface, hearing only the quiet lap of the water and the soft brushing of the aspens, the stillness and huge space filled me up so entirely that I felt weighted to the ground, as if I something wanted to hold me here.
On our way back, we encountered a large truck pulling a trailer. The woman told us she was the niece of the owners of the house with the piano. As a child, she and her siblings had spent summers in this valley, riding horses up into the hills, with miles of wilderness to explore and play in.
From all these fragments of the past, I weave together a story of this valley. All these lives over time left their traces on the land, like the weathered buildings and faint outlines of the airstrip. These are people whose lives were so different from mine—ranching, living off the land, enduring hardships I can’t imagine— while I pick up smoked salmon and kale at Safeway, drink from bottles of purified water and sit at my computer all day.
Yet we’re all connected. I stand in a long line of people who have inhabited this valley, put our feet down here, breathed the same thin air, watched the clouds soar over these same hills, our gaze pulled upward to Mount Meeker. Our lives intersect, like the pond, pulling all us together.
(For the history of Elk Park Ranch, I am indebted toWeaving Mountain Memoriesby Lorna Knowlton.)