Nine years ago this month, Mike and I drove down from Fort Collins to choose a few acres in Navajo to buy. We didn’t know much about this area, only that we loved how it felt to our suburban souls. It took us another year to build our passive solar home facing the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with Mount Mestas to our west.
I was reminded again early this morning why I love living here. I woke up around 6:30 AM to see an unobstructed view of a bright red sunrise to our southeast. This is BIG SKY country to me, where the landscape and the silence are the main characters! Every time I go outside in the morning I stop and feel astounded by the silence. This is what the earth used to be like. Maybe a few bird sounds, but otherwise perfect silence…
Sure there are also unattractive features to this area, but the land is encouraging and haunting all at once, and the summers are glorious!
Our first summer here we had so much fun exploring the back roads and back stories, like this dilapidated adobe schoolhouse slowly sinking back into the earth west of here…
or taking the train up to Fir to hear the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play in a big mountain meadow.
When I first met Mike he said he wasn’t moving again until he could look at something besides the house across the street.
We found this cartoon in a magazine and laughed together about it. Then we went in search of someplace with truly ‘spectacular views.’
I have been blown away by watching the Yellowstone prequel “1883” in the past week or so. I did not know a “western” could be so poetic, authentic and full of heart. I loved it so much I watched it again after I got back from Christmas and loved it even more!
First, a little background. I was raised in Kansas near the prairie where my ancestors arrived many decades before me. When I first started reading books, I loved stories about the pioneer West. The first stories I ever wrote were about Native Americans and their ponies. Then I started reading everything by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the personal journals of westward women. I only wanted to play “pioneer woman” as a kid. I guess you could say I have been unconsciously searching for the perfect “western” my whole life. I finally found it in “1883.”
First of all I love that the main character and narrator is a teenage woman. The whole story is told from Elsa’s perspective, with just the right combination of authentic and sensitively-written narrative and dialogue. I felt like I could see into Elsa’s heart, while also understanding the other characters’ inner lives as well. As the writer, Taylor Sheridan, explains in “Behind the Story,” he wanted this story to feel as intimate for the audience as reading a good novel, or even the personal journal of a young woman on a wagon train heading west. He does a masterful job of that, and yet I keep wondering how a man could have such an intimate understanding of a teenage woman’s worldview.
As I think about it now, the ever-changing landscape is the main character in this story, that and the silence. So many of Elsa’s observations remind me of my own after moving to rural Colorado eight years ago. My amazement at the silence and beauty of each sunrise and sunset, the comfort of the wildlife passing by our home each day, the glorious seasons we experience so intimately, this is what I love about living out here. Elsa’s story seems to authentically capture the beauty and the violence of the American West over one hundred years ago around the time the transcontinental railroad began changing everything. There is so much truth in some of her observations like:
“I think cities have weakened us as a species.”
Another profound aspect of Elsa’s story is how living in the West allowed so much more freedom for women. I enjoyed watching her relationship with her mother develop as her Mom tries to remind her of the limitations of being a woman in 1880s America. Elsa rebels every chance she gets. Elsa enjoyed the loss of rules and customs as they moved west. The big transition came when she decided she was a cowboy and got herself some pants to wear instead of dresses.
I loved the writer’s sensitive portrayal of the other characters, especially when it came to ‘race.’ Race is not a word I use, because I do not believe we humans are different ‘races.’ But back in 1880s America, blacks were treated badly as a general rule. Thomas, the old Civil War friend of Shea, played by the wagon train boss Sam Elliott, understood how badly others could treat him for being black, as he stated at one point, “You ain’t never been whipped.” Native Americans play an important role in this saga and mostly as sympathetic characters including members of the Comanche and Crow tribes. The true “bad guys” of this Western are “bandits.”
Suffice to say this is by far the best western story I have ever seen. It shows the beauty and severe violence of the American West in no uncertain terms, and I believe it may be more authentic as a story than any other I have read. I found the very last phrase in this story so vivid and relevant to my state of mind these days –
“There is a moment when your dreams and memories merge together and form a perfect world. That is heaven, and each heaven is unique. It is the world of you…”
Yesterday we were watching a Youtube video of a boating tour around Venice. Visiting Venice in the mid-1980s was one of my most favorite trips ever. It felt like a trip back in time for me and I loved it! As I watched I kept saying, “I was so lucky to go all of the places I’ve been in my life!” Then I questioned that statement. Was it just luck? Not at all.
When I was young I got the travel bug from my Dad, so whenever I decided to go somewhere, I just did it. I would spend money I didn’t have to go live in Bangkok, float down a number of rivers all over the West, or go sailing in the Caribbean. A friend and I took what we called “the people’s ferry” up the Pearl River to Guilin, China before anyone else was going there. None of these were planned tours, we just went.
This was not a simple case of luck, but rather a perfect example of my belief that ‘what you focus on grows.’ It was my natural inclination to see as much of the world as I could. Luck had little to do with it. Of course the tough part was the bronchitis I had in Bangkok, China, Taipei and Venice, and my difficulties breathing at 8,300 feet in Cuenca, Ecuador. Health scares drove me to visit as many places as I could before my lungs became a problem, making me ever more thankful that I traveled so much when I was young.
Another example of apparent luck? Having such loving beings around me as I find myself not so healthy or able to travel easily. Now I see that was not luck at all. I am one of those people who doesn’t have many friends, but those I have are completely loyal. They know me and love me unconditionally, through thick and thin.
Believing it was just luck that I now live in such a naturally quiet and beautiful place with an amazing garden is pure foolishness. Getting here took quite a bit of time, stress and energy, but it was all completely worth it!
Through this thought process I realized how easy it can be to simply feel lucky, but I think it is important that we give ourselves full credit for the choices we’ve made consciously throughout our lives.
Perhaps we have been better at life than we thought! Imagine that!
My father, Dr. Jack L. Carter, was a well-known botanist and strong advocate of growing native plants in the areas they are native to. We lovingly called him a “native plants nazi” because he was always commenting on how inappropriate certain plants and trees were in our yards and neighborhoods. In his honor I would like to mention a few natives that have either volunteered or been transplanted into my garden up here at 7,000 feet, west of Walsenburg Colorado.
My favorite is the Showy Four O’Clock. This one just happened to be properly placed to come up every year under my Buddha. It starts blooming in the late day in mid-July and continues for quite a while. The only year it did not bloom was in 2018 when we had a wildfire nearby.
A plant I love to see down here is what I know as the Cane Cholla Cactus. They are common along Highway I-25 from just north of Pueblo to the Colorado-New Mexico state border and they are blooming right now. I liked them so much that I started a few of them in my garden four years ago, because I know they take a long time to grow and bloom.
I just cut off the end of one cane and planted it in the ground. This is a plant two years later….
I am so excited to see that one of my four year old plants actually had a bloom this week! I didn’t know how long it took to get these to bloom. Gardeners must be AMAZINGLY PATIENT.
I have also added a nice evening primrose, which has always been one of my favorites, and of course we have much more yucca than we want!
Finally, we have had hundreds of native sunflowers here ever since we moved in. I love them. They remind me of my Kansas upbringing.
I only wish I would have known long before I did, that the more interesting life you lead, the more fun you will have remembering it in your 60s. To celebrate my birthday this year, I have decided to share with you a few of the crazy adventures I have had through the years. These are the things I enjoy thinking about today. Sometimes it feels a bit like reading someone else’s tales, but I’m not making any of this up!
Early in my time at Colorado College, a few of us decided to go backpacking in Canyonlands in southern Utah in August of 1973. BTW, it’s super hot and dry there in August! Showing further bad judgment, we decided to split up into three separate groups.
My friend Margie and I decided to follow a trail that led to Peek-a-boo Springs and near there we found a cave with some amazing artifacts in it! We camped there for a couple days and then headed back to meet up with the other two groups, but they never arrived. We decided to talk to the rangers who were quite concerned because of the heat and extreme lack of water at that time of year. We ended up flying over the entire Salt Creek Canyon in a helicopter searching for our friends. In the meantime, the rangers got confused and called my parents to report that I was lost in Canyonlands. It all ended up fine. The one friend ran into a rattlesnake and decided to turn around. The other two hiked the whole Salt Creek Canyon and came out the other end none too worse for wear.
Then there was the time a friend and I joined up with her boyfriend and another guy who said they were being paid to move a sailboat from the west end of Puerto Rico (Mayaguez) all the way to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. For future reference, this is NOT a good plan. We were going against the wind the whole time and only made it as far as Ponce before we decided it was basically an impossible task. But three of us still wanted to see Tortola so we took a flight there for a week. We stayed on Cane Garden Bay and loved every minute of it! There were very few tourists because Hurricane Hugo had come through in September 1989, so we had the place to ourselves.
To tell you the truth, building this rural passive solar home in southern Colorado was also more of an adventure than either Mike or I were looking for. Being new here, we had no idea what we were up against, like only one building inspector for the entire county, and it just went on and on with an amazing number of major obstacles and delays. Sometimes it felt like a hopeless battle just finishing it, because our builder kept putting us off. Finally we dead-lined him with, “We’re not paying you until it’s finished.” and “We need to move out of our rental the end of July.” Finally something worked!
All in all I feel super lucky with how my life has gone. So many of the circumstances seemed like that old Chinese tale about deciding too soon that an apparent misfortune is in fact a blessing in disguise. I loved all of my river trips, backpacking trips, adventures abroad, various chance meetings and romantic liaisons, because they led me to this exact moment in this tremendously beautiful place with the love of my life. I am quite content with that.
Shoot me an e-mail if you would like to learn more about our decision to move south and our experience with building a solar home west of Walsenburg. My book: A Memoir of Retirement: From Suburbia to Solar in Southern Colorado.