Twenty-odd years ago, on a weekend winter escape from grad school in Denver, a friend and I drove three hours south, then west up 96, climbing the soaring Hardscrabble Canyon, and, not long afterward, setting eyes for the first time on the Wet Mountain Valley, its great expanse not yet scathed by human intent.
The small towns of Silver Cliff and Westcliffe claim the valley floor at 7,888 feet, and abandoned mines speckle the hills east of town, but then, as now, one can see far and wide, as the aboriginal peoples did, without feeling fettered by Huck Finn sardonically called sivilization. One feels small here, like the miniscule figures in Asian paintings the viewer has to hunt to find. Appropriately, one feels one’s humility in the natural world.
Now, I live here, along with my son, two rescue dogs, countless antelope and a host of diverse people from all manner of backgrounds, a community somehow – by luck at birth or greater luck at homing in on this Valley later on – cohabiting peacefully under skies huge with billowing cumulus and autumn aspens fluttering golden beneath the blue.
At the local coffee shop, a grizzled, tattooed biker regales the retired literature professor with tales of his daughter’s wedding to an Orthodox Jew back East. A rancher just returned from Argentina discusses our new radio station with the fine-arts photographer who engineers the station. Painters, plumbers, teachers, and realtors exchange news of family, complain about the price of gas and adore the weather over straight-up coffee, lattés and white chocolate mochas before heading to work each morning.
On Main Street, children leave their bikes unattended while checking out books at the expanded local library, where the free-for-donation shelves sport offerings as varied as French-to- Spanish dictionaries, Nancy Drew mysteries, Introduction to Geology,the Definitive Crockpot Cooking Bible and home-schooling curricula, secular and Christian. On the take-an-issue, leave-an-issue magazine racks, one can find Tennis Monthly, The London Review of Books, Sunset Magazine, The Economist, Western Homes, and Ode, among other offerings.
Every Thursday, the weekly newspaper is immediately consumed cover-to-cover for the local skinny as well as Valley connections to the larger world. A local young woman and her Tibetan husband send bulletins on the recent earthquake in China, soliciting donations from Sichuan province. We learn of inevitable vehicular encounters with deer, the population of the county jail (the “hoosegow”) – generally a handful of men, 1 woman – the time and place of spaghetti fundraising dinners to help residents with no insurance and too many medical bills, openings of new shows at the Third Street Gallery, obituaries of current and former residents, births of grandchildren local and distant, military and academic achievements of recent grads of Custer County High, and, of course, the classifieds, in which one can buy anything from a cutting-edge snowplow to laying hens to widescreen HDTV to “ugly old Jimmy, but works.”
In this valley, we look after each other. Last winter, after my car got high-centered in serious snow, my son, dogs and I hiked back a mile in ten-degree weather to a neighbor, who drove us to the top of our driveway. Just when we were assuming a day by necessity to be spent at home, I heard a strange noise: a horn, right in front of my snowed-in cabin! It was my boss’s husband, driving his snowplow. Although my phone didn’t work, my boss had intuited we were stuck and sent him to rescue us. Some days, that’s how it feels to live here: to be rescued. Nature offers succor, neighbors offer help,
and though the world and its daily vicissitudes never cease their daily rounds, we remain humble yet strong in this, our beloved landscape.
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