Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam, and the Deer and the Antelope Play

Friday, February 7, 2020 | Granby, Colorado, USA

With every passing year I spend away from the US, I feel the psychological distance grow, stretching to match the physical distance a bit more. Sometimes it's nice to return home and soak up a little Americana.

So for our longest vacation of 2019, Nina and I decided to spend ten days in August in Colorado catching up with my uncle Chris, aunt Kari, and cousin Mitch.

Back when I lived in DC in my 20s, my uncle, an avid outdoorsman, had invited me several times to spend July 4th weekend with their friends and family at a campground on the shore of Turquoise Lake, deep in the Rocky Mountains. I have fond memories of campfire stories with my cousins, and of hikes up to pristine high-mountain lakes in search of cutthroat trout. (See "Turqoise to Timberline: Chasing Trout in the Rockies")

More recently, Chris and Kari bought a small property near the town of Granby, just over two hours' drive from their home in suburban Denver. Ever since, my uncle had been pressing me to come back for another visit. As he well knew, I could only open my phone so many times to find an unsolicited snapshot of snow-capped mountains or sparkling streams before I caved.

While my mom and sister Maggie flew in from the east coast, Nina and I reached Denver via Montreal (for reflections from our long layover there, see "Much To Love in MTL"). We spent a day in Denver acclimating to the thinner atmosphere (they don't call it the "Mile High City" for nothing) and sampling the local Tex-Mex specialties, then headed into the hills.

Colorado's population has boomed in the last few decades, with much of the growth concentrated on the front range of the Rocky Mountains, in the Fort Collins-Boulder-Denver-Colorado Springs axis. That boom has brought new development to the mountains too, but compared to where I grew up the area still feels relatively empty.

The highway narrowed to just a two-lane road as it climbed westward, following a creek through former silver mining towns, their boom years long behind them. We spotted patches of snow—still clinging to the highest slopes in August—while crossing the continental divide at Berthoud Pass (elevation 11,307 ft / 3,446m). Traversing the high-mountain meadows, we passed ranches, the occasional general store, and signs for nearby ski resorts and cannabis dispensaries. (Colorado legalized recreational marijuana usage six years ago.)

Chris and Kari's place was at Ouray Ranch, a private plot straddling the Colorado River. Technically theirs was a condo, connected to a small cluster of neighbors' homes, but inside it felt like a cabin, all finished in rustic wood, with a cozy fireplace. From the back porch, we could peer through a gap in the aspen trees to watch ospreys fish in the river below. "Andrew, there goes your trout, man," my uncle would joke whenever a bird winged skyward with a fish wriggling in its talons. "Now you aren't gonna catch a darn thing in the morning."

Mitch's identical twin brother Noah passed away in a car crash several hours west of here in 2015, aged just 19. Noah was tender, fun-loving, just starting to turn the corner into adulthood. The first years after he passed, his absence was an ever-present heaviness, a visible and unfathomable burden for his parents and brother.

On this trip I noted that something subtle had changed. Noah didn't feel so much like an absence, but instead more like an extra presence, someone who I didn't expect to encounter there but whose memory still weaves in and out of so many conversations, or comes to mind when a gaze drifts to an empty chair at the far end of the dinner table. These days, that memory is as likely to bring a smile as it is a long face.

Noah hadn't known this place, which my aunt and uncle bought and renovated in just the last few years, but all agreed he would have loved it.

Coloradans lead the nation in activity levels, and there is no shortage of outdoor adventures all around. Thanks to my aunt's many helpful recommendations, we managed to pack our trip full of activities.

Twice during the trip we whitewater rafted down frigid snowmelt rivers—even getting my mom in the boat for one trip, which was an adventure in itself! We took long hikes around the local lakes, enjoyed cocktails on the porch of the Grand Lake Lodge, and drove into Rocky Mountain National Park for hikes and moose-spotting. We ended up seeing half a dozen of them, including a massive bull right by the roadside. Perhaps an even better highlight of the park was the drive along Trail Ridge Road (America's highest paved road, reaching an elevation of 12,183 ft / 3,713 m) and view of the mountaintops' extreme ecology, with stunted plants, brilliant lichens, and chubby marmots.

Nina and I also signed up one morning for a horseback ride through the aspen forests. The ride was led by a cowboy from Utah—the real kind who walks bow-legged and works on cattle ranches—who did a double-take when he heard where we were visiting from. ("Ayyylgeria huh?")

I even did my best to compete with the ospreys, joining my uncle for multiple fly fishing outings on the Colorado River. Not equipped with waders, I plowed into the icy water in jeans and hiking boots each time, cursing the cold until my feet went numb. The fishing started slowly but before long we landed on the right flies and technique, and began hauling in respectable numbers of rainbow and brown trout.

Unless you're a bird of prey, the fishing at Ouray Ranch is catch-and-release only, so we grilled on the porch each evening or drove into nearby Granby for more Tex-Mex. (If one measures the trip by how much Tex-Mex we managed to consume—as I'm often accused of doing—then it was a resounding success.) We did our best to sample all the locally brewed beers (Avalanche Amber Ale being my favorite) while the mosquitoes sampled us. (They were a particularly hungry variety, I discovered, that would happily bite you through your clothes.)

Nina loved it all, but then again, she also loved simple things like our visits to the local grocery stores, where she wandered the aisles alone, wide-eyed. America can be an overwhelming place if you haven't spent much time there before.

To close the trip, Mitch gave Nina, Maggie, and me a quick tour of downtown Denver, then we took in a concert (John Butler Trio, Yonder Mountain String Band, KT Tunstall) at Red Rocks, the gorgeous outdoor amphitheater in the foothills outside Denver.

For me, this perfect trip was a reminder of how rugged and gorgeous the American West can be, and of just how comfortable life there can be, with the wilds all but tamed and the frontier all but faded.

With warmest thanks to my uncle Chris, aunt Kari, cousin Mitch (and cousin Noah in spirit).

My Rolleiflex photos from our Colorado trip are available here: 2019 Rollei - Colorado, and my Leica Q2 photos are available here: 2019.08 Q2 - Colorado.

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