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Belly of the Mountains

Looking out the back door there are mountains. While looking out from the front door you will see that there are even more mountains… From the living room couch we can see Station Eleven and behind us only a hundred yards or so stands Neoga. No matter which window you look out through from our 1935 “rustic style” cabin that we’ll be living in—while managing another ten cabins—there are massive risen beds of rock, sediment, minerals, and plenty forms of wildlife making their way around and down their ridges. Collectively these are the San Juan mountains. Our friend and employer, Paula, relayed the message that if we see that it’s begun to snow or rain on Roundtop Mountain next to Red Mountain, both just west of here, that means we have 45 minutes to expect the same weather to strike here.

Mountains can tell the future here. Whoaa.

In these first eight acclimating days I’ve come to understand that living in Lake City requires an acceptance of deer grazing quite literally on your doorstep, eating your flowers, with groups of these young muscle-swoll bucks or spikes and doe shitting those little pellets all in your yards cause let’s be honest, it’s not mating season so they obviously don’t have much else to do other than to not get shot and not get eaten. If you’ve ever seen a mule deer maybe you’ve noticed the bulkier size difference to your average whitetail deer—even though they aren’t necessarily bigger—other than their ears are noticeably larger, “like a mules”, thus the name. Their fur is thicker to adapt in these harsher climates, becoming mangy in transition to warmer seasons, similar to sheep’s wool beginning to fall off in patches as if they’ve tried shaving for the first time. I point this out because a few times I’ve thought, “Are you sick?”

Yesterday we drove out an hour and came upon multiple bull moose and two female elks. I saw a huge marmot that seemed not much smaller than our German Shepherd bounding away in a pasture the same day. Frankly, it is gorgeous here in Lake City—a brand of pretty you question. How can it be so pretty? Why? “Well,” the land might say, “my father was a volcano and my mother was a super busty iron-rich hillside.” I could take a picture to send as a postcard every day of a different piece of beautiful land honestly, so any sense of modesty need not apply here.

The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River coils along I-49 for miles at the bottom of a water-formed canyon with the road running along the top of it, looking down a two-hundred-foot cliff or so at times as you drive on into town, the river connecting with the frigid Henson Creek pouring in from the mountain caps. Lake San Cristobal was formed at the opposite end of town when the Lake Fork was dammed by the Slumgullion Earth Flow. Lake City gets its name from Lake San Cristobal. This Slumgullion Earth Flow is interesting: it refers to a massive landslide of loose ancient volcanic remains from Mesa Seco mountain, still slow-sliding out twenty feet each year, and the name Slumgullion references a stew of yellow (corn) color miners once made, remarking on the yellow tint of the rocks exposed from the landslide.
And oh yeah, there are bears. There are bears in your backyard sometimes. They might eat or mangle your dog. A bear will break into your car or kitchen and might crack your hummingbird feeder open like a coconut and drink the sugar water. It is ill-advised to leave your outside trash bins filled with any food overnight because it will attract bears, so dumpsters are “bear-proof”, or built like tanks: smelly, smelly tanks. We haven’t seen one here yet* but if I do, I hope The Jungle Book doesn’t let me down. If all he does is scratch his ass on trees while singing in that gravelly baritone voice about keepin’ Life simple and down to the barest of necessities, it’ll all be fine

Ouray, Silverton, Telluride, Durango: all are popular cities people venture to when exploring Colorado, and all are only thirty or so miles from Lake City, however, the only ways to get there by car or any two-wheel-drive vehicle will take three to four hours. This is because you have to go around the mountains unless you have a four-wheel-drive ATV or a four-wheel-drive automobile you trust to weave and survive along off-road trails through and over the mountains along Alpine Loop that reaches 12,640 feet, moseying through dead mining towns with building relics still preserved and standing, over utterly gorgeous mountain ranges—I almost cried at one—on through the ruins of Capitol City, into Engineers Pass where the two-wheel drives have to return the opposite direction and cannot go any further. Still, it’s a day-long to and fro trip this way over the mountains, but far shorter than the long trek around on the highway.

We’re at 8600 feet above sea-level in town so the sun burns you quickly, yet if you find some shade from up under a blue spruce or a cloud bundle crossing over, the temperature might drop 10-20 degrees, no shit. In Little Rock, the shade traps the sun like a spider web, so Arkansas shade is smothering. All those white/Casper apparitions people claim to have seen over the years are poor pale Southern bastards who thought the shade would save them from the sun.
Anyhow, an interesting tidbit, there’s a local man by the name of Alfred Packer who went to prison in the latter half of the 19th century for having confessed to eating some or a few of the five men he was traveling with so that he wouldn’t starve to death. He was later convicted of manslaughter, all five accounts, though many consider that he didn’t kill them to eat them, more than likely they all went crazy, some people were shot, and he ended up killing the last man out of “self-defense,” and only THEN did he eat them. I hope this exuded local pride for this story is primarily for novelty purposes—Packer’s Saloon and Cannibal Bar and Grill, Cannibal Cabins, for examples—otherwise, I can’t fully trust any local in this town. Phil ain’t for dinner. As long as I’m dead I suppose it won’t matter. So far, I say this facetiously of course.

So far.

Long before all the mines and mining towns that rose and fell in search of gold and silver, before the brothels and dance halls over on what was once called “Hell’s Acre” did what they did, before the fly fishing and ice fishing and hiking and ATV riding locals and tourists enjoy today, the Ute tribe were here. The Ute actually roamed all of Colorado up into Wyoming, west to Utah (Ute), southward on into New Mexico. This was Ute Territory when they migrated through this area at different seasons throughout the year, that was until a mining company claimed a stake in their land just a few miles from here, soon choosing to “honor” the name of their mining company with the Ute tribe’s name, Ute Ulay Mine and Mill. Here I invoke the response, on their behalf, the chill European dudes we know are out there, “I’d of been chill with the Indians, bro. I’d of been cool with you.”** Uncompahgre Mountain can be seen atop Slumgullion jutting out like a witch’s hat, or a shark’s fin, the tallest summit of the San Juan’s, a Ute word but named by settlers.

Knowing that right up the road were once the insides of volcanoes, later the territory of native societies, and then a town miners would settle and build; I think this experience may epitomize a powerful personal adventure for new sights, to get some writing done, to hopefully crack open some new opportunities in ¿business? and maintenance skills, and really embrace the feelings of gratitude for the things I have now and for whatever is to come. For all this to be even attempted tastefully, it seems like there needed to be some dead volcano ash in the mix, with a dash of moose-Ute-miner-elk-mountain-canyon-deer-bear-cool shade-creek water blend, with maybe some salt and a little pepper. This is an outsider’s attempt to conjure my own stew from the mountain influence, and really, whatever I have to do to make my own body seem as inedible in the least to these people. I’m kidding.

So far.

*I saw a’many bear.

**I have European and Indian blood.

picture of Umcompahgre by Michael Underwood

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