Earlier this week I drove up to Southern Colorado for a day. My old friend Atlas and I met up in the Rio Grande National Forest, which was startlingly pretty with its aspens in early autumn plumage. Atlas lives in Boulder and I live in Albuquerque—we decided to meet somewhere halfway between us. We hadn’t seen each other for three years.
Campsites were hard to come by, so I reserved the one spot that was available on such short notice: a small cabin in a mountain valley, just next to the clear and cold Burro Creek. It was a ‘historic cow camp’ according to the NFS sign out front. Built by Simon Off in 1917 and used seasonally on the cattle drive until 1979. ‘Historic’ meant that there was no electricity or running water. No cell reception either. Wood-burning stove. Rickety outhouse. We couldn’t have been happier with it.
The valley was quiet and remote. You’ve got to cross a small stream (leap of faith) and hike a mile and a half in to get to it. Perfect for a writing retreat some day, we decided.
By the time we hiked all our gear in it was already starting to get dark. We started a fire in the fire pit outside and rolled a couple witchy spliff joints, fragrant with mugwort and calendula. We made camembert grilled cheese sandwiches over the fire (because who says campfire food can’t be gourmet?) and caught up. Jobs, school, people we were dating/not dating. New tattoos, new philosophies. A lot has happened in the last three years. We cracked open a couple cans of Budweiser found in the cabin (we’ll get you back later, Ranger) and cheersed, foam dripping over our sooty hands.
When darkness finally fell it was still cloudy, so it was a while until we saw stars. When we did it was incredible—the night sky sliced in half by the Milky Way. Whatever, I won’t try to describe stars seen from a remote mountain valley. Nobody could write that. Just go there sometime, ok?
Atlas left early in the morning, but not before starting a fresh fire in the stove so I wouldn’t freeze when I got out of bed later. (Thanks.) The first rays of sun were creeping over the mountain when I got up. I heated up my thermos of day-old coffee on the stove, washed the dirty dishes in the creek, watched the sun rise. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of beautiful experiences in the past year, but this one ranks pretty far up there.
The drive out of the valley made me realize why some people value four-wheel drive. My little sedan fishtailed on the curvy gravel roads; white-knuckle driving. But so, so pretty. I stopped a dozen times to get out of the car and take pictures, take another breath of mountain air. I decided to take 160 the other direction from how I came, curling down the mountain to Pagosa Springs (“The Deepest Hot Spring in the World,” according to Guinness). Then onto 84 south to Chama, Tierra Amarilla, and then Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch sits surrounded by the sweeping red cliffs that fill her canvases. Lots of RVs out here. Families seeing America. Same as me, I guess.
I got home later than I anticipated. Tired as hell, legs cramped up from hiking in the morning and then sitting in a driver’s seat all day. My jeans are filthy and smell like a campfire. I’m not going to wash them quite yet.
Somebody just pulled up outside my open window with Joni Mitchell’s “California” playing. “Caaaalifornia, I’m coming home—will you take me as I am?” I love that song. I really used to think California was where I was supposed to be, but I’m not so sure anymore. There’s a whole lot of places worth being in, all over the country. Lots of people worth being with. I don’t know if ‘supposed’ has anything to do with it.