I was not prepared for this Colorado experience.
I came through the southeast corner in the evening and passed a mile of concrete feed bunks with a cowboy on a horse in full regalia- the hat, the snap shirt, everything- trotting back and forth, waving an American flag over the heads of hundreds of gorging cattle. No shit. Both the cowboy and the cattle hemmed in by barbed wire.
I drove up through dusty, dismal towns given over to industrial agriculture. I stopped for peaches and produce. I stopped at the foot of the mountains and bought a fishing license, bought some groceries, bought some beer. I pretended not to notice the lead-gray clouds brooding over the mountains.
Look- I know Colorado is a zoo. I know it caters to all types. I know it’s the closest opportunity flatlanders like me have to experience some topographic relief. I know there’s yuppies and hipsters and crunchy outdoor types; I know there’s someone out there sunning their butthole, somewhere. Individually, none of those things are bad. Taken together, they can be overwhelming.
I wasn’t prepared to truck through fifty miles of Forest road trying to figure out what’s public and what’s private, because it’s legal to leave inholdings unmarked. I wasn’t entirely prepared for said Forest Road to start falling apart in the rain. I wasn’t prepared to bag the day’s fishing trip, to head down the mountain on the narrow rocky Forest Road dotted occasionally with the gates of million dollar mansions that had to cart timber and concrete and shingles and windows and wire and insulation and stone veneer up the narrow mountain Forest Road. Mansions that will burn down this year or next year or the year after. I’m sure a lot of them mean well. I’m sure if you could get past the gate, they’d tell you how environmentally conscious they are.
I wasn’t prepared for the backup plan, for spending thirty bucks to park on BLM land and fish for aliens on a river that’s being killed by mine waste and water withdrawal and too many damn people.
I wasn’t prepared for the lack of dispersed camping. I wasn’t prepared for Forest Service campgrounds, administered by some ambiguous third party, charging fifteen or twenty bucks a night. I wasn’t prepared for the middle-aged host, singing the campground rules with an acoustic guitar. I wasn’t prepared for the whimsy.
I wasn’t prepared for the goddamn cows. If I was a cow on public land- I could walk where I want, sleep where I want, pee where I want, shit where I want. I could wallow and wade in whatever sensitive environments I please, eat whatever rare or threatened vegetation I wish. But I’m not a cow, I’m just a person- one who pays taxes and licenses and twenty-three bucks a night to hear the campground host sing the rules with an acoustic guitar. One who underwrites the open range. One who subsidizes the beef industry. I wasn’t prepared to slog through miles of cowmire along trail repaired by Forest Service staff, only to be destroyed by livestock. You can’t run a chainsaw or an ATV in federally designated wilderness because it spoils the area’s pristine character. You get to share that wilderness experience with a hundred head of livestock. I know, I know- open range is a central part of western heritage.
So are whorehouses. It doesn’t mean we need them everywhere. It doesn’t mean we need so many they cause problems.
You see the photos of expansive western landscapes and it doesn’t capture the granular details of what’s going on. You see the photos of bros hoisting big fish, and it doesn’t capture the details of a changing watershed. The photos you like don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell you about water diversion. They don’t tell you about forest fragmentation. The photos don’t tell you about landscape use, or noise pollution, or policy on public lands. They don’t tell you about the monetization and commodification and privatization of resources ostensibly held in the public trust.
The photos you like don’t tell you any of that. Not until it’s too late.