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    by Mary Beth Ellis
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Even though we're well past the last week in June, Colorado has been much in mind lately. Perhaps it's because I applied to, and was promptly rejected for, a day job which would have made a great deal of financial trouble go far, far away, even leaving space in the budget for such absolute necessities of life as leather-fringed garments. Perhaps it's because I'm doing some intensive aunting right now and had a very serious conversation with Jim The Small Child Nephew concerning horses, and whether or not one's butt hurts after riding one.

For some reason, until this week, it never occurred to me to search YouTube for recent videos of Lost Valley, even though I've whiled away entire days thoroughly enjoying entertainment of this caliber. I suppose I've put a subconscious prohibition on the endeavor: There's no way to get there from here, so why tighten the screws on the Wistful Writerly Yearning?

Then again, I've never subscribed to the "staring at it won't help anything" school of thought. Ask my college freshman crush, poor soul, who always seemed to run into me at the library: "What, you're into eighteenth century upholstery techniques too?" So I started typing and clicking and watching and... oh.

The perennial "Last Week In June" post mentions the 2002 Hayman forest fire. I knew it happened, I knew it was awful, I knew the areas where I rode as a child had been deeply affected. I knew the ranch itself escaped with only miraculous intervention--that the fire reached the property line, split for precisely the 500 acres of the spread, and continued with all proper furor on the other side of the valley. Blackened trees here and there, a few pockets of wasted vegitation: That is what I expected.

What I did not expect was Afghanistan.

Oh my people, this used to be all green. It was green.


The emerald splash along the lower gulch in the first picture-- that was the entire landscape, everywhere, forever, and the quiet was alive with it, and the horses and the sun, they picked their ways through it-- it was the kind of green you could smell. And this brown, it has its own stark loveliness, I suppose; Buzz Aldrin, as he stood upon the surface of the Moon, called it "magnificent desolation." Even when nature has rendered nature barren, beauty quietly runs along the breaklines.

But not when your body has lived there, and your mind returns to it on a constant basis as a touchstone for peace and dreams fulfilled, the memories well-known but no less sharp for the constant returning.

I know this place. I know Lost Valley; I know it as mine.

But I don't know this:


Where... is this place? Low Ridge, right, yes, I've been there. The caption on the video makes sense, it's all very proper, but my eyes... don't... register the land where these horses are cantering.

And then there's this:


"You'll have nightmares," my mother warned, watching me watch it. I shook my head and stared the thing, all eight minutes, a hand at my mouth. I didn't cry and I wasn't in shock. Still haven't, still aren't. I was riveted by the truth, the mesmerizing cocktail of terrible danger visited on images which I usually turn to for motivation, nostalgia, comfort. It was so close. It was so close. At the 2:45 mark, a grinning firefighter holds aloft a charred metal "LOST VALLEY RANCH" sign, one attached to the cattle guard, one my family likely drove past for nine years in a row. The other half of the cattle guard isn't shown, because, I am told, the other half was completely untouched.

That...sky, which I never fail to picture as rock-steady blue, to see it a flickering, furious orange-- the same shades I pumped my fist at when pouring from the double tail of the solid rocket boosters. Those colors belong in Florida, shifting and gaudy and loud. They are not meant for the singing creeks, the humming birdsong of Colorado. A late-fall slide show looks odd, too--I was last at Lost Valley for a one-hour visit in the early spring of 2001, and the muddy remnants of a recent snow were melting down the silent mountainsides. Even though I've never seen the ranch in full winter finery, I prefer these images, prefer the cold and the fact that the swimming pool would be of absolutely no use. The landmarks are frosted and silent, not burnt, gone.

In the snow, the fire never happened.

Am I sorry that I went there? Have the memories been altered, the tiny slow ache which has been a part of me since I left it for the last time? I'm not, they aren't, and the ache is lessened now, replaced with a hard, stubborn knot of denial. It's good that I can't afford to go there, because there... is not there. It's better that I not see it like this, limiting myself only to returning when the place is frozen in temperature and time, safely covered with a blanket of white lies.

Pictures on the ranch's official website are as verdant as the day I was first set in a saddle, and while the FAQ page gently addresses the fire, it ends on a cheerful note about refreshing rains and reappearing wildflowers. No doubt, no doubt there are some cacti and other hardies around, aspens rustling in the wind. I am quite sure that any person booking a trip to Lost Valley today would have a perfectly dudetacular time, and take little notice of the difference. They'd have no measure of comparsion. But when I first heard that the ranch had been spared, that undergrowth was slowly returning, I very happily allowed it to guild the mental pictures I had already generated of a slightly crispy, but largely untouched, childhood. I want to be there, that Lost Valley, the one I know. The green one. The soil of memory does not provide for wastelands of needleless, stripped-down pines.

I have YouTubed myself into honesty.

In the '80's, the Lost Valley wranglers used to take us to ride in a pocket of Pike National Forest called "the burnout"; it, too, had suffered a forest fire. The wind was stronger there, and the scattered carcasses of whitish stumps and logs made for good jumping practice. A few new trees, little twigs in the ground, dotted the landscape. Every now and then, we'd see deer or birds or bugs. There were flowers. It was scarred, long ago scarred, and hugely different from the other places we rode, where the tangles of pine branches whipped in the faces of the rider behind if we didn't hold them properly and the sun dappled down through the thin, wispy sky.

"The burnout," I said to my father last night. "When was the fire that left the damage, do you know?"

"Counting back from the time we were there?" He thought for a moment. "Twenty years, I'd say."

Perhaps I'll one day I'll conduct a very long conversation with myself, or just spread some jelly on slice of wheat some ordinary morning and settle into it all: It's gone, the place I knew. It is gone.

I've seen devastation and pain on a far larger scale, seen New Orleans just months after Hurricane Katrina raged through. But I did not love New Orleans. I couldn't have. I had never even seen New Orleans before that day, seen it as others knew it and lived it. I felt for New Orleans as a human being feels for another human being in the hospital, bare bones sticking out, tubes for every vital organ. You go for a wet washcloth and make soft noises of comfort, but you don't let it interfere with the mechanisms of the inner soul. And I imagine that's what 99.99% of you out there are experiencing at this moment: "Sucks. Really, that sucks, but... seriously, now. They're trees." Four dollars and seven cents for a gallon of gas, yes, and a The Pilot of my very own and a roof to call mine, and these... are trees. You don't have to say it.

I know.

Jim The Small Child Nephew saw me staring out at air molecules today as he watched his daily dose of Curious George, thumb in his mouth. He offered me half his blankie.

"You hold it like this," he instructed, gathering it in his fist.

"Thank you," I said.

"You suck your thumb?" he asked.

"Aunts don't do that," I told him.

They blog instead.

blue and green at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com

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Reader Comments (4)

I am so sorry for your loss here. Nothing hurts like revisiting places of childhood one hasn't seen in years and finding it has all changed, it is all different. At least you have the hope that it will all grow back in time.
And that picture is greener than Afghanistan.

July 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstarnarcosis

Oh, Mary Beth, I am so sorry that you have had this loss. I have so much enjoyed your descriptions of your lovely memories of the ranch, and they have stirred cherished memories of my own childhood oasis. I have felt I knew something of what that land meant to you.

In my current incarnation, I drive through the wreckage from two forest fires, on a semi-monthly basis, and I can understand the thought that although we see the forest regeneration, we still mourn what is gone forever - which is the perfection that was there the first time we fell in love with it.

But you know, it makes me think this morning about marriage, and myself even...the idea that a lot of the things I fell in love with have changed or disappeared over the years. My memories are as valuable as reality. And part of being truly intertwined with a living something else is coming to terms with its very livingness - its changeability. St. exupery - "To love someone is to risk tears" or something like that. The mortality, the fragility, the very finiteness of this life and the lives in it make me love it so very much more.

And now I am thinking about the devastation of the times I have seen my sense of who I am as a mother totally destroyed. Times when I have burned any personal standard of behavior and really really let myself and one or more of my children down - and I can never have that purity of hope and commitment again that I had when parenting was something I thought I could Handle Very Well Naturally. But the thing of it is, is that this too has forced me to come to a peaceful place of accepting God's mercy and grace, wresting me away from any place of pride. And maybe (mindbending thought) this ultimately can make me a better mother than I would've been before.

Too much rambling. And it's time to go move a sprinkler in the front yard :-) But thanks for such a thought-provoking post. And I will be praying for you today, and your spiritual journey though a burned-out wonderland.

July 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteraazmom

And we're glad you blog. So sorry about the destruction a place so precious to you. Eventually, the wildflowers will come.

July 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDana

I understand your pain. When I was a kid my parents and my uncle used to take my sisters, my cousins and I to this little town in Jalisco, that was close to a very beautiful lake whre we could swim and have fun with an inflatable raft. The memories of those Easter holidays are the best ones of my childhood. Later as an adult I returned to that town to discover the lake was gone! It was so dryed up you could barely see the water line far in the horizon.

But we will never experience those wonderful natural places we knew at our tender ages; not just because of all the havok we are raising on our little planet thanks to our addiction to oil, but because those places weren't that real to begin with. In our memories they foliage of the trees are painted in technicolor, and the sounds of nature were recorded in THX.

We create this idillic bucolic mental photograph that is flawless and perfect, while other people (specially grown-ups) might have experienced it very differently. So when we go back to those cherished places of our past, we find that the houses are smaller, the trees thinner and the grass yellower.

I think we all want to return to those places not just to see the trees, but because we also want to find our inner infant, that child who saw the world as a place full of miracles.

The only thing I can say is that you should be thankful for those memories and the chance you had to enjoy the Ranch in its full glory, and find comfort in thinking that in the future, you and your family will go to another place where your children will once again experience that same magic.

And you'll be able to share it through their eyes.

July 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterred pill junkie
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