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Pritchett: After a year of hibernation-isolation, there’s so much exploring to do in Colorado

Novelist Laura Pritchett is a Colorado native but is delighted to discover she still has a lot to learn and share about our state

A backpacker on Colorado's Continental Divide takes in the view from a vantage point in the South San Juan Wilderness, one of the remotest areas in Colorado and a part of the Rio Grande National Forest. Dean Krakel/Special to the Sun

As a native Coloradan with gypsy leanings, I’ve always dreamed of getting business cards that read “Professional Coloradan” an idea I once picked up from Colorado’s great columnist Ed Quillen. 

Wandering this state is the one thing I’m good at, or endeavor to be — my novels are set in various regions of the state, from plains to inner mountains, and my nonfiction writings have wandered from wolves near Steamboat, fracking near Greeley, fossils in Florissant, sex changes in Trinidad, my family’s ranch in northern Colorado. Every nook and cranny — that’s been my goal. 

And I am loving it as never before. This past year has been an exercise in relationship-building, I suppose because we tend to bond deeply with that which saves us. In the stress of COVID and wildfires, I managed cortisol through phytoncides, the chemicals released from plants that boost happiness. 

Laura Pritchett

While we all might not have shots, this is one Rx treatment we are graced to have access to — 43% of our state belongs to us! — and several times this past year, I have found solace, whether it was sleeping with a packrat near Strawberry Park, sifting burned pine needles up the Poudre Canyon, or hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

There is comfort in the familiar, but simultaneously, each trip I took reminded me of how little I know. How much there is to know. I will die “Not Knowing Enough About Colorado,” another business card logo idea, and I suppose that ultimately, that’s the best part. Curiosity is the best definition of love, Plato said. “Remaining Curious to Colorado”  is perhaps what my cards should read instead.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, I walked the land in southern Colorado known as the de Vargas crossing, where the Rio Grande Rift starts, this being a place where flat land suddenly jogs and lilts and creates a crevice that eventually deepens into the famous Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, 800 feet deep. 

It has to start somewhere, after all, although before now, I hadn’t paused to wonder where. I can now tell you: drive east of Antonito, and you’ll find the spot where the lithosphere — that “skin” layer we’re all familiar with — stretches. With a mixture of volcanism and shifting tectonic plates, there are a few feet of cliffs that deepen as you look south. 

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Since most continental rifts are in the ocean and only a few are visible on land, this is just a flat-out cool geographical area, and one that de Vargas was surely delighted to see in 1694 so he could get across the dang canyon (though that had unfortunate consequences, which is another story).

But it’s also unique culturally. I was lucky enough to be hiking with Aaron Abeyta, the mayor of Antonito, a great poet, and an old friend. He’s seventh of nine generations in the area — talk about someone who deserves “Professional Coloradan” business cards! — and as we walked on the ice of the frozen Rio Grande searching the canyon walls for petroglyphs, he explained that for several generations, in between Juan de Onate in the 1590s and de Vargas in the 1690s, the pueblos in that area existed without Spanish influence, which is why the language and customs in this Colorado-New Mexico area are so different than the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.

I guess I knew that, but forgot to know that, or did I know that? Vaguely, I suppose. But as we walked and talked — six feet apart, careful not to get too close — it struck me that I knew nothing. That ‘ol “the more you know thing.” Abeyta and our walk had reminded me of a geographical and cultural rarity which deserved further exploration.

From there, my partner and I ventured on, to the great gorge downriver near Taos and then the U.S.-Mexico border to do some reporting, to the surprisingly deserted Grand Canyon, then Moab. As we re-entered Colorado on I-70, we took note of the burn scars from this past summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire and celebrated our mighty Colorado River by stopping to have lunch on her icy banks. 

When we made it back to the Front Range and its unsurprising traffic — this is where 90% of Coloradans live, after all — we discussed how the trip was marked by not only landscape, not only by education and exploration, but about renewed curiosity in the sometimes stultifying times of COVID. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

After a year of hibernation-isolation and only small excursions to isolated spots, this road trip felt epic indeed. Epic because it reminded me to stay alert to what I don’t yet know. So much to be explored statewide — the history and future and geography — and so much on the personal level — parenting, love, loss, living in these times. 

These are topics I look forward to writing about. I’m deeply honored to have “Colorado Sun Columnist” added to my imaginary business cards wish-list, with the idea that “Livin’ and Loving this State” is something we all endeavor to do. 


Laura Pritchett is a Colorado native whose five novels are set across the state. She directs the Master of Fine Arts in Nature Writing concentration at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.


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