The Colorado experience.

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.





7 responses to “The Colorado experience.”

  1. Katherine Price Avatar

    Oh this sounds miserable, especially after your heartening December post about the Great American Outdoors Act. Livestock can be amazing agents of change in a landscape, but only if there are limited numbers and some kind of balance. Sorry you had such a bad time.

    1. Obie. Avatar

      It definitely wasn’t all bad- but it did open my eyes to how we manage- and sometimes mismanage- western lands.

  2. Pazlo Avatar

    I think “Land Management” says it all. It’s not the Bureau of Land Conservancy or the Bureau of What Would Be Best For Earth, humans-be-damned. It takes a lot of muddy logging roads to provide lumber for building more houses on the overcrowded planet. It takes a lot of cows to provide whole milk to obese schoolchildren and beef for your fast-food restaurants.
    “The photos you like” are exactly that. They are postcards from a fictional dream. All the shit of the world is cropped out.
    But we can’t stop. Did you drive to Colorado? Did you use fuel? Did you buy snacks? Imagine the photos of the oilfields and brownfields of the third world, with all the shit cropped out, just the smiling faces of Shell employees reading about a record high profit in a year that was described as economy-in-decline and recessionary. And children melting scrapped circuit boards over open fires to extract the toxic metals.
    I’m sorry, my young friend, that you didn’t find the “Colorado” you sought. The one with waving wildflowers, prairie schooners, crystal clear streams filled with native trout, and mountains that stretch to the sky. The home of the world’s first National Park. Well, at least the mountains are still there. And you can look at the photos.

    Best regards,


    1. Obie. Avatar

      It isn’t the Bureau of Land Conservancy or the Bureau of What Would Be Best For Earth. It is the Forest Service, whose mission includes sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the lands they manage. It is federally designated wilderness, set aside explicitly for the protection of its natural character. If we can prohibit ATVs and chainsaws in those areas because they spoil that character, then we need to re-examine the meadows full of cow shit.

      I’m not taking an absolutist position. If a logging company wants to rut up their own roads, I have no objection. If a landowner is willing to absorb the costs of turning their back 40 into a pig farm or a feedlot, the choice is theirs. his is public land, in the public trust, and less than five percent exists as federally designated wilderness. Much of the rest is leased to private industry at pennies on the dollar, providing land and forage which would otherwise have to be purchased at a fair market price. If private industry needs public lands, and the considerable subsidies they provide…then public land managers should implement reasonable sideboards to ensure those lands still meet the standards of their designation. If private industry finds those sideboards onerous, they don’t have to participate. Public land users shouldn’t have to tiptoe through cow patties in our wilderness areas because it makes private industry marginally more profitable.

      You can walk through our federal wilderness and still find old roads and adits and cabins and corrals, trash middens and cast iron cook stoves no one hauled out when the timber or the ore was gone. These landscapes will never be pristine, but we do get to choose the level of pressure humanity exerts on them. We’ve designed protections for these landscapes which still leave them vulnerable to degradation. We can choose to address those shortcomings, or we can try to justify them. We can choose to degrade these last little parcels of wild land, for the sake of whole milk and hamburgers, as our gift to our children.

  3. Avatar

    Great post. Colorado, Alberta…same story.

  4. rivertoprambles Avatar

    Agreed! Welfare ranching on our federal wildlands should be outlawed. Earth considerations should be first & foremost in our thoughts & actions.

  5. Steve Vaughn Avatar

    Man, that was depressing. Seriously, my eyes have been opened since moving to the West and I understand your anger. I was struck by the considerable disconnect with your trip and a YouTuber’s I recently started following. He makes multi-week trips out west camping in the back of his pickup (the reason I first watched his videos). His experiences in the National Forests in Colorado seemed very different from yours. You can check him out here –

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