Finding Mountain Home

First visit to a special place.

In the morning I drove away from the city, toward the mountains. The sun was low. Almost winter sun. Not quite. Still breath left in autumn. I had exact coordinates for a place I’d never been. Detailed maps, satellite views, county records. I knew so much but I still didn’t know the land. I was anxious to get there. The highway wound higher into the hills, under the shadows of peaks, beside flowing water. I fiddled with the radio, avoided some speed traps. At a little mountain town I turned off the highway.

Tight steep curves cut a quick path away from town. I dropped the car into low gear. End of the pavement. Transition. The tires fell away, then the first bump. Deep washboard, big rocks, rough hard exposed surfaces. Almost too hard. One of the three most difficult roads that I have driven the car on, I’d say. (The other roads are stories for other days.) Some people called it a jeep trail, I call it a forest road. Back and forth climbing loose gravel switchbacks. Sometimes the road was smooth and easy, other times I slowed to a crawl to negotiate a corner or avoid rocks or both.

Following the ridge.

On the road went, through the forest. Pine and aspen, spruce. I just missed the aspen’s golden hours in early autumn. The yellow and silver leaves still piled around on the ground, drifts under the trees that bore them. Shadows of the pines rippled across my path for miles. Along a ridge I saw a vista of the peaks all around the wide hilltop. Up one side and down another, then up again. There I came to the end of the road. A fence, a gate. No passage beyond by car. Switch to feet to continue. I parked and got out.

The forest was popping with gunfire from the west, back the way I came, toward some campgrounds. Target shooting. One cabin nearby with people talking and laughing. Noisier than I like my woods usually, but it sounded like everyone was having a good time. Sunday afternoon, one of the last Sundays before snows come. They were out living it up. I walked along the road for a while, until I found a stake driven into the ground and painted red. One corner of a property for sale. This is what I came for. I climbed down the hill from the road.

Views from the road.

In a way this was the end of a trip that started almost two years earlier, sitting in my office at a posh-sounding address in New York. Idly thumbing through real estate listings on my lunch break, I felt frustrated and claustrophobic in the office. I wanted to escape, to find a place where it would be easier to breathe again, to go back west. I zoomed out on a map of the United States west of the Great Plains, looking only at vacant land. Slowly dialing up the cost peppered the map with more markers for listings. I squinted at the map and tried to play time forward, to imagine what the country might look like in 10, 20, 30 years.

At first I was attracted to vast swaths of flat land in the scrub of the high Oregon desert. Utah too. Desolate and exposed but cheap and remote. Great country for solar power but difficult for everything else. One of my friends at work called those properties wasteland fantasies. I imagined the deserts of the southwest moving ever farther north, eating into southern Canada. On the map, mountains broke up that pattern. From a flattened satellite view they appear in long streaky beige rain shadows set against dark green forests. The windward side of mountains catches more precipitation. Natural rain collectors. A foil against drought. I moved my search from the desert into the mountains.

Later when I left the city, all my driving around had this underlying goal: learn the land. I knew the satellite views, I possessed the roadmaps, but the map is not the land. Repeat that again and again. The map is not the land. I had to go to all these places for myself. I wanted to learn what the land was really like. I needed to smell the wind, watch the sun, poke around in the dirt. I was born in the shadow of mountains, grew up drinking water from the mountains, ate their fruit. Whenever I’m away from them my bones call me back. Still I knew that not everywhere would be a good place for me. So I went out and searched for places that felt right. To learn the character of different ground.

Aspen grove at the end of autumn.

After getting down from the road I focused on getting exact orientation from the land, figuring out precisely where I was standing. First I walked the perimeter, found all the red stakes at the corners of the property. No fences, hardly a sign of anything more than an arbitrary distinction of “property.” An imaginary boundary slicing one part of the forest off from another on the map. On the land I could walk back and forth between domains without even knowing it. I was glad of that. I don’t like fences. In this case the land itself was the fence. Backed up to a steep hill with no neighbors on this side of the road. Just me and the forest.

The map is not the land but these days it gets close.

A wide scar cut through the middle of the property, a fifty year-old remnant of civilization’s passage. A path too, following the curve of the hill. Too big for an animal trail, maybe an informal hiking trail or an old road. It met with the scar like a crossroads, with young trees slowly taking hold there at the intersection. Later one of my neighbors told me the first road was built in the 1880s and updated in the 1960s, around the time when the land was plotted. That first road was the kind of trail used by miners and mules, not for cars.

The hills all around were once full of gold and other metals. Seems like they were mostly mined out by the late 1940s. A common enough story in Colorado. In the age of industry, there were riches to be made in the mountains. Ravenously consumed and then abandoned. Everywhere the state is dotted by old mines, collapsed forgotten buildings. Fewer now. In my life I’ve watched some of them degrade into nothing, or get demolished and filled in. The scars on the land remain, everything else disappears. Maybe eventually the scars will disappear too.

Strictly speaking I don’t believe in property ownership. But if I want a permanent place to establish an outpost, even deep in the woods, I knew that I’d have to “buy” it. I would rather pay taxes to the state than rent to a land owner (though owner-financing is almost the same thing as rent… at least until the loan is paid). Even then the land won’t be mine, not really. Land doesn’t belong to a single person. At most I will hold it close and be its caretaker for a while.

Finding the sun’s orientation to predict its path over the course of the year.

In the middle of the property I stood in the sun and tried to figure out where it would set. I spun time forward to the end of 2017, back to the beginning of 2016. I watched the moon and the sun on the map, looked up to see the sun in the sky and imagined how high it would be in six months at this time of day. I looked through summer, spring and autumn, winter, and back again. Snow came and melted, the aspens greened and yellowed and dropped their leaves. I came back to where I was in time. The orientation of the mountains and the trees will make solar power less effective, but it’s windy up there. Using nothing but the wind and sun and earth, it will be enough.

I started making a little handheld timelapse of the sun moving between the trees. In that time I contacted the seller and paid earnest money for the property. About a month later we formally closed the deal, but from that moment on I was committed to buying the property. It seemed important to do something to mark the occasion. I didn’t know what to do. I was overwhelmed by the place. In the notes app on my phone I wrote the first words that came to my mind.

New mountain home is lovely.”

Looking back from the road.