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The Last Week in June

It’s a tradition here at Blonde Champagne to run the vintage post “The Last Week in June,” circa 2000-and-something, at the proper time.  This year, wildfires are once again racing through the dry and thirsty West.  Please pray for the firefighters and those in harm's way.

The Last Week in June

This week was, in my childhood, what kept me alive throughout the other fifty-one. It is what pulled me to Colorado, horses and dust and pine trees and creeks of freezing mountain runoff. Even if I’ve been conducting my June unconsciously aware of the anniversary, I suddenly will feel a strong rugged pull as the Fourth of July approaches and look at the calendar and realize, “Oh. The Week.”

Although it’s now priced right out of this world, it wasn’t back in those days, and from the year I was six until the year I was thirteen, this was It. I have never known a place I was happier. College comes a close second, but four years are impossible to conduct without at least some semblance of tears and heartbreak. There were no tears in Lost Valley except for the following Sunday, when there was always near-hysteria. One year I sobbed as the plane departed from Colorado Springs at the thought of another twelve months of waiting in Cincinnati: Were we going to Ohio for a funeral? the woman sitting behind me wondered to my mother’s horrified humiliation.

A part of me is literally seared there, burned into the walls of the main dining room. Each family creates its own brand as it passes through, adding checkmarks each returning year. Our brand sits high on a far wall overlooking the mountains and the hummingbird feeders. The brand is a boot representing the brief fact that we all rode that first year, even my mother, who bravely lasted until Wednesday, when she gripped the saddle horn of Colt 45 so tightly that tendinitis followed. Our initial stands in the middle of the boot over wavy lines representing the Ohio River. As I was fully lame even at an early age, this was my civically proud suggestion.

When I grew up and went to stay with my then-boyfriend in Colorado Springs for a month, he drove me there along a narrow shelf road I thought wondrous at the time and now, returning as a driver myself, recognized as terrifying. On one side is a drop of many thousands of feet through trees and jagged scenery; on the other, pure mountain. When two cars meet going opposite directions, one driver has to back up, slowly and with much tense cursing.

“This place is kind of cheesy,” the ex announced as he got out of the car and looked upon cabins named “Jessie James” and “Diamond Lil.” And I knew then, somehow, although the end was yet months away and much sobbed over, that I could never, ever marry this person.

It is kind of cheesy, in a City Slickers sort of fashion, the way the wranglers greet the suburbanites at the cattle guard entrance on horseback and canter away in front of the car to guide these unleathery dudes to the check-in lodge, but when you are six and you are miserable, this is wondrous to behold. It announced horses to me, the very ones I write about today, and it brought seven days of the social acceptance I never found in the classroom. I heard God in the pines and I inhaled; this was where my soul has lived for so long. This was where the kid picked last for the kickball team won rodeo awards for booting her quarter horse around the barrels the fastest.

Terrible fires raged five years ago all around this little green valley I have always thought of as cupped in God’s palm. The ranch was evacuated, the horses herded to safety. I was reunited via phone with one of the kiddie supervisors who cared for me twenty years ago and have exchanged Christmas cards with ever since (it is that kind of place) and she described to me what happened.

“The fire got to the cattle guard,” she told me, “and it split. Burned everything around it, but the ranch was untouched. The areas in the mountains where you rode as a child are scorched, I’m afraid.”

I would be scorched, too, if I returned right now. I know towering pines and thick tangles of wildflowers, and I prefer to keep them alive inside of me rather than replacing them with black and charred reality.

The regeneration has already begun, I am sure. It will be well underway a few years from now, when Jim the Small Child Nephew will be old enough to ride with a plastic cowboy hat on his head and a face full of sunblock. We will go, I think, the last week in June.



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.

This used to be all green. It was green.  See?

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 comparison. 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 write instead.

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