As the small US Airways Express jet begins its rocky descent into Grand Junction, Colorado, I watch as the turbulence knocks a vodka and tonic out of the hands of a businessman two seats away. The mountains below have the papier-maché look of a Lionel train set, the sun so blinding that many passengers have shut their window shades. At 15,000 feet, I find myself wondering if the Western states will soon become like the parched terrain of the Middle East, a desert with scarce inhabitation.
Upon my arrival in Grand Junction, the first thing I notice is the haze above the rim of distant mountains. "Ah," I'd say to somebody if I could, "these are the wildfires that have plagued the region for weeks."
The next day, the wild Colorado forest fires can still be seen over the rim of the distant mountains. I'm off to see Grand Junction's main attraction, Colorado National Monument Park, where my guide, who is also a local TV celebrity, has planned a picnic breakfast for me with a young tourism intern.
She tells me to meet them at the park entrance, where I'll transfer to their van. From there, we'll all take the treacherous mountain road, where one careless move means going off a cliff. The Ute Indians inhabited this place before teams of pioneers (leading horses and cattle) made their way through the rocky valley below.
We do make the momentous climb through winding neolithic rock that reminds me of a theme park by Jacques Lipchitz or Giacometti. The jaw-dropping scenery keeps getting better and better.
One man's obsession
No wonder these canyons so obsessed John Otto, the son of a Lutheran elder, that he spent his life building trails for visitors as well as carving steps by hand into the massive vertical walls. Otto's epic letter-writing promotional campaigns to politicians in praise of the monument escalated from pleas for scenic highways into support for women's rights and an eight-hour work day until the governor of California had him thrown into an insane asylum.
On a nearby picnic table, we spread out our delicious fruit, yogurt and bagel-and-egg sandwich breakfast, never suspecting that in ten minutes we'd be forced to bag everything and eat in transit because of the gnats.
Later, as we head off toward the first lookout, a cliff precipice with a Grand Canyon sweep, I encounter one of those "Oh God" moments that demand nothing less than a full prostration before the grandeur of it all. Colorful lizards slither here and there, but otherwise the place is as quiet as Death Valley.
Wedding Rock is a big slather of prehistoric rock, as large as the Chrysler Building, and the place where in 1911 Otto married artist Beatrice Farnham, a wealthy 35-year-old Boston native whose unconventional ideas about marriage seemed to parallel his own. Two months later, Beatrice returned to Boston, ostensibly to close her old estate, but never to return, forcing Otto to finish his days as a hermit in a humble shack in California.
My guide describes her own great-grandmother, a pioneer woman who hid outlaws in her ranch house and who is somewhat of a local legend. Of course the Old West is full of local legends. There are even legendary trees, such as the 300-year-old miniature pine tree my guide points out.
Fast-forward 48 hours and I'm on the road again. This time another tour guide takes me to Mesa Wind Farms in the dramatically isolated high desert area outside of Delta. In the '60s, several hippie communes flourished nearby. Their descendants today are people like Wink, a tall and perpetually sunburned former New Englander now active in western Colorado's Valley Organic Growers Association. Its numerous member farms bear names like Peace & Plenty Farm, Redlands Mesa Grange, West Elk Hop Farm and Aloha Organic Fruit. Many of them attract people like Wink and his wife Max— educated émigrés from the East Coast attracted by Colorado's vibrant ecological farming community.
Max, who reminds me of Meryl Streep playing Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa, gathers us on the patio as Wink prepares a wine tasting. Colorado is relatively new to the wineries but its western slopes have more than their fair share of established and pop-up wineries, and wine tasting has become a kind of local sport.
During the drive to Mesa Farms, for instance, we passed several rustic signposts inviting travelers to come in for sips at wineries with names like Delicious Orchards, Liliputian or Terror Creek Winery, many located along the edges of steep cliffs or ravines without the benefit of guardrails.
(In Colorado, the spirit of individuality outshines the need for government interference when it comes to protecting citizens from common sense infractions: If you're stupid enough to drive drunk on a winding mountain road, that's your problem. "But locals know how these roads twist and turn," my guide assured me, "so there are rarely any accidents.")
No sooner did Wink begin explaining the attributes of a special Mesa Wind Pinot Noir than we were hit by a violent squall blowing in like an Old Testament judgment, forcing Wink to jump up to remove the patio canopy, lest it blow away like a hot air balloon. These squall winds are so intense they can blow open the doors cabins. In a few seconds, however, it's all over.
The deadly nighttime silence at Mesa Wind Farms can be disconcerting, especially to a noise-conditioned Eastern urbanite. Sound asleep in my cabin; I bolted upright around 2 a.m. when I heard a dirge-like wail that seemed to be a mix of coyote, hyena and human baby sounds. The pitch-blackness, however, revealed nothing. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the sky, a dead ringer for Van Gogh's Starry Night.
Pit bull attacks
The next morning, after a hearty blueberry pancake breakfast, Wink shows me around the farm, introducing me to a lamb named Abe, after Lincoln, who will one day be sent to slaughter. In a surprise move, Wink gestures toward a woman in an ankle-length dress and white bonnet running alongside her suspender-clad husband up a dirt road leading further into the desert.
"They jog past every morning," he says. "They used to jog with a pit bull, but the pit bull attacked another dog and killed it. It even threatened to attack our dogs."
When the owners of the dead dog sued, Wink adds, the couple insisted everything was OK because they'd already put the pit bull down.
The area around Hotchkiss and Paonia, Colorado was discovered by groups of California Mennonites, so Amish sightings in the region are quite common. Wink says the Mennonites have generally been proven to be good neighbors and farmers.
As a wine connoisseur, I jumped at the chance to help Wink bottle, label and package 24 boxes of wine, during which he gives me directions for the last leg of my journey: a road trip into Montrose, once a hard-drinking cowboy town filled with saloons and whorehouses.
To get the true story of those whorehouses you have to talk to salty old-timers like Richard E. Fike, founder of the Museum of the Mountain West, who looks a lot like the novelist John Steinbeck. The museum was described to me by one Montrose resident as a casual makeshift effort put together by "this one guy," but it proved to be the trip's top draw (aside from those scenic wonders).
Most notable was an intact pharmacy from the 19th Century, filled to capacity with tonics, herbs, gels, pills and drugs behind beautiful wooden cases, the sum total of which gave off a mix of intoxicating aromas, or the smell of history, but certainly something you can wrap your senses around. The place attracted the early Mormons, who bought the tonics not for their medicinal attributes so much as for their high 80 proof alcohol content— a licit way circumventing the Mormon Church's prohibitions against intoxicating stimulants.
Famous men's room
I wanted to run my fingers over the tin ceiling, grafted from the ceiling of a saloon whorehouse, where you could still count the bullet holes shot by drunken cowboys waiting for their turn upstairs. But the tin ceiling paled in comparison to the infamous trapdoor inside the men's room in the old Montrose train station. Discretion sometimes, is everything, even in the Old West, where men with reputations to protect would enter the men's room, but rather than flush and exit, they'd open the trapdoor and descend into a tunnel that took them to a whorehouse not far away. Their business completed, they would then return through the tunnel, exit the trapdoor, and emerge into the station, much like a fresh arrival from Philadelphia.
My business in Colorado completed, I returned home by more conventional means. I am, after all, a 21st-century Philadelphian. But don't you think that Montrose trapdoor would have been useful to some of my famous contemporaries— like, say, Bill, Clinton, Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner?