A friend who has lived in Meeker Park for several decades has been bemoaning the changes he sees around our small valley and in the nearby tourist town of Estes Park. Many are small changes that outsiders wouldn’t notice, but he catalogs each one as a sign of a disappearing culture, a way of life.
On one of the historic ranches down the road, the slightly decrepit wooden post over the entry road has been replaced by a modern, overly large metal sign. Nearby, a long-time tourist resort, the kind that once offered horseback rides as well as small family cabins, has been turned into a yoga and tai chi center. Most offensive to him is the new dollar store in Estes, a cube of metal and glass with a garish yellow neon sign, sitting above and looking out of place on a road with older hotels and houses.
I’m more accepting of human change—what is known as “progress”—than he is, but I can’t help mourn the passing of what I call rustic. The original cabins and hotels, mainly built for summer tourists, were made of materials from the surrounding area—logs from ponderosa or spruce trees, and granite rocks, still emblazoned with lichen, used for fireplaces and the bases of cabins. The original cabins had no insulation, so the wind, as did the mice, found cracks to enter.
My cabin (left), built in 1939, has knotty pine walls and a granite rock fireplace. The foundation consists of tree stumps that have somehow lasted these almost 80 years. The cabin feels like an extension of the outdoors, as if it were part of the natural world, not something foreign or opposed to it. Real cabins blend into the landscape so well it’s hard to see the cabin for the woods sometimes.
But it's getting harder to find rustic cabins and tourist lodgings. Many cabins, especially in Estes Park, have been modernized or enlarged in the past few decades. In fact, the YMCA museum in Estes has preserved an original cabin, circa the 1950s or ‘60s, as a piece of history (right and below).
The interior of these old cabins was plain and simple, consisting of a table and wooden chairs, a couch, bunk beds and a sink for washing dishes (an indoor toilet and showers were optional). The table was the heart of the cabin, not just where you ate but also where you played cards and Monopoly, wrote postcards and letters. A worn wooden book case held old popular hardcover books (like Nancy Drew or the Bobbsey Twins) and some dated National Geographic magazines.
In those days, you wouldn’t have been distracted by a TV or wi-fi, because your main purpose was to relax in nature. During the day, if it wasn’t raining, you were outside fishing, hiking, drawing or sitting on the front porch with friends and family. As a child, you might be throwing rocks in the river, chasing chipmunks or creating art projects from sticks and leaves.
When Rocky Mountain National Park was first established, the Park Service razed most of the historic lodges in the park, presumably because they weren’t part of nature. But one historic lodge is still standing and operating, just down the road from my cabin. Built in 1917 of logs and sticks (what is known locally as “stick” architecture), the Baldpate Inn (top) is rustic perfection. Snuggled into the hillside, you ascend worn wooden steps to the lobby and restaurant, where the wood floors creak and the ceiling, made of wooden beams, sags slightly. Everything feels soft and malleable, like a place you could sink your body and mind into.
On warm summer days, people sit on the porch (right), rocking back and forth in the old wooden chairs, enjoying the sunlight filtered through the aspens and watching the hummingbirds gather at the feeders. Nothing to do but just enjoy the day.
But being lazy and living a simple life doesn’t come easy these days. Just down the road are modern hotels that have hot tubs, king-size beds, flat-screen TVs and wi-fi— everything needed to keep you comfortable and entertained. If your motel room doesn’t provide enough distractions, the town of Estes Park is full of them: miniature golf courses, shopping, restaurants and almost weekly festivals.
It’s not just the loss of old rustic buildings that my neighbor and I mourn, but the passing of a slower and more thoughtful way of life: one where you could waste a whole afternoon throwing a fishing line into the creek or propped against a ponderosa reading a good book.