Neese Wilson, her messy bun tucked under her sun hat, smacked her arm.
"Mosquitoes," she said. "They're bad right now. But I don't want to put on bug spray because the birds count on them for food." She watched her feet carefully as she made her way downhill. The bugs were bad all right. Biting right through my clothing.
We were on a search for orchids. Tiny forest orchids, once proliferating, now disappearing as a combination of increasing heat and loss of tree cover burns them out. Behind me, Orvel Ray, her husband and my long-time friend and coach, named one flower after another. Moose tracks wandered through a copse of trees. They had seen this moose on the edge of the treeline the other day. We had to keep an eye out just in case. The moose was sleeping in a thick patch of high grass on the far end of the meadow, and evidence of his wanderings was everywhere.
Neese is a botanist, especially expert on orchids, and their home is full of them. Their solar home is at the edge of this four-hundred-acre protected area, land that was once a 1940s homesteaders' farm but now a protected Colorado meadow.
I couldn't have arrived to visit at a better time. Spring shows up late in the high country, and with it a panoply of flowers so varied and brilliant that it boggles the mind. Wild iris, in particular, waved in the light breezes, as far as I could see. The carpets of purple and yellow competed for pollinators, which were busy in the afternoon sun.
The Wilson's house sits at 9,000 feet, in one of those increasingly rare gems: nobody else can build where they are. Their smallish home, which was Boulder's first all-solar home, is surrounded by pines and mature aspens. Just outside their kitchen windows, a smorgasbord of suet and seeds brings in woodpeckers and nesting birds. Early morning is a circus of acrobatics as the larger birds like Stellar's Jays hang on while pecking the suet.
I have many of the same visitors in Eugene, Oregon, which is where I moved after almost fifty years in Denver.
While I'm no rock star like John Denver, this was a good-bye tour for me. I'd moved to Denver in the early seventies, right about the time Denver's song Rocky Mountain High became a chart topper. His crooning about the high country served as a siren song for many. He sang about sorrows on the land nearly fifty years ago. It wasn't easy to go back, even a year later, to see just how prophetic he had been.
When I moved to the Mile High City in the early seventies, the population was just over a million people. The horse trails and hiking trails weren't as crowded as they are today. Lots of folks had assumed that despite how loudly Colorado crowed about its plentiful sunshine days, folks back East assumed we had huge snowstorms (we could) and that we were forever digging out (we weren't). The truth will win out, and as folks discovered what a great place it was to live, those folks came in droves.
The Wilsons chose their home without realizing what would happen in and around Boulder and Denver. From the days when, upon passing Sheridan Boulevard on Highway 36 to Boulder, the drive would be pitch black back in the early 70s, now it's just one tract housing development after another.
In fact, when I skipped over the Wyoming state line into Colorado on my return to the state, right on the outside edges of a fast-moving hailstorm, the long lonely miles of Wyoming were replaced by nothing but 'burbs.
That's true much of the way south towards New Mexico as well, with any and all lands that can be developed being developed.
The high, winding road that gives you access to this meadow leads to a wonderland for Neese. She studies the local plants, and when she notices that there are declining populations, she marks and protects them with a ring of branches. Then she reports on their progress, or more likely, their disappearance. It's scientists like Neese who have not only the knowledge and the skill but also the near-daily access to the changing landscape which can allow the scientific community to get a far more accurate read of how changes in temperatures and tree cover are truly affecting both plants and animals on the ground.
When I first landed in Denver in 1971, I had been working briefly for Disney World. Like many, I didn't last. I had an old boyfriend call me from Michigan where he was staying with a buddy. They were driving to Denver. Did I want to join them? I was eighteen at the time, with my entire life ahead of me. I'd been living on my own for two years already. Why not?
We took Frank's busted-up VW Beetle, my longish teenaged body curled into a C-shape against the back window, and set off across the American Heartland. We would drive off the main highway in the long, flat, breadbasket of waving wheat and corn to find the local diner.
We didn't know at the time that those small towns, the diners with their tomato soup and perfectly crisped Velveeta cheese sandwiches, would disappear as strip malls and Walmarts would eat up the quaint towns and small cities that dotted the plains. Malls and big box stores were already changing the face of the retail landscape. Only a few years after my friends and I chugged our way across Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Colorado, the characteristic one-lane towns that we so loved were changed forever. Gone, effectively.
The three of us parted ways once we arrived, and I found a small room in an older house on Josephine Street near downtown and just south of Colfax Avenue. I was stunned by the snowcapped mountains in the near distance and the cool, dry air, which was a far cry from the dense, oppressive humidity of Central Florida. Without a car, and with Denver's metro bus system little more than a few squiggly lines through town, finding work and ways to stay were hard.
Ultimately, I had to move back to Florida, with a heartfelt commitment to return someday. I did a stint in the Army, and when I got out, I returned to Denver in 1979, this time with a degree, a car and work experience.
When I first landed in Denver, the weirdly canted downtown streets, which were designed to follow the Platte River, were lined with charming old buildings. The city fathers in their questionable wisdom decided over the years to rip those out for modernization. Included was an iconic building designed by the great I.M. Pei, along with the rattlesnake-designed tiles which marked the walkways. Denver's never been known for good judgment around development and many of us who loved Pei's work were deeply saddened to see those unique landmarks lost. However, good souls worked harder still to preserve the building fronts which today speak to Denver's past, when the last person out of the city at 5 pm turned off the lights.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Denver and the suburbs grew. I had moved from one neighborhood to another, from downtown Boulder on the Hill to what we used to lovingly refer to as East Kansas, or Aurora. All those places are changed now by the massive influx of new residents, many of whom want green lawns in a world where today's ski bunnies are on slopes of manufactured snow. When I first saw those slopes in the early seventies, nobody could have imagined such a thing.
© Orvel Ray Wilson
Nor could those of us outside the water rights and scientific worlds have truly understood the kinds of pressures that are now placed on the Colorado River and Lake Mead and all the Western reservoirs. That diminishing supply of water has to support farmers and golf courses and the recreational industries that people move to Colorado to enjoy. The water would always be there, we thought. The snow would always fall. Lots of it. Ski bums would always be able to live in the small towns of the high country for cheap. So we thought. At that point, Aspen was still barely more than a blip, not a billionaire's playground.
The Western USA, even that recently, seemed so wide open that "urban sprawl" seemed impossible. The notion of a border-to-border city which effectively stretches from Canada to Mexico was laughable. It isn't now. It's swiftly becoming a reality.
Orvel Ray Wilson was building a speaking profession on the backs of multiple best-selling books in the Guerrilla Selling series. From a small office in Boulder, his company's reach went worldwide. We had met when I was active as a professional speaker. We briefly flirted with the idea of working together, but my life took different turns. We did remain friends through the years. He and Neese bought the solar house on Gap Road in 1980 and settled in, while my career twisted and turned in all directions, sometimes taking me far afield. However, I always returned to Colorado, my love affair with the spring thunderstorms and wild sweet air unrelenting.
© Orvel Ray Wilson
I spent a short stint away in North Carolina, then Spokane, Washington. I came back to the state to live in Durango for a few years, then returned to Denver when my consultancy required that I live closer to a big airport.
I wasn't paying much attention to what was happening in the West.
Until I could no longer ignore it.
By the time I had launched my adventure travel career around 2011, Denver had fundamentally changed. No longer a small cow town, it was a thriving metropolis, soon to become America's Millennial darling, especially Boulder. Major corporations were beginning to eye the city as a relocation possibility, and growth had overtaken the entire Front Range. Hiking trails were jammed, the water resources stretched to the limit, and people kept moving there by the hundreds of thousands. Small towns like Lafayette gobbled up farmlands and had become feeder towns for Boulder, which had set strict growth limits. One of the results was that an average home in Boulder passed the million bucks mark.
Back in 1973, a friend bought what is known as the Wedding Cake house on Mapleton Avenue in Boulder for $73,000. That same house is now worth around $5.5 million. He still owns it and he's not selling.
Meanwhile, up on Gap Road, while Neese struggled to find full-time work, Orvel Ray had remade himself just as I had. Their lives, largely untouched by the massive influx of folks from places like New York and Texas, continued its quiet trajectory. A few years prior, Orvel Ray had severely broken his back while working on his neighbor's roof. He lost his speaking practice, then began working as a coach. I was his one of first clients. We produced a triple prize-winning book together.
Orvel worked hard at rehabbing his body. Part of that demanded a larger home. They built out a big extension which gave his professional drumming and recording practice new life, and offered Neese plenty more space to grow her exuberant orchids and rubber plants which stretch enthusiastically across the ceiling. The quiet meadow, rustling aspens, and abundant wildlife morphed into a retreat not only for Orvel Ray but also for his clients. Many of those folks had never hiked a hill, named a nodding wildflower, spotted a moose, or spent an hour watching woodpeckers wrestle suet out of a feeder.
That is the Colorado that most folks dream about: a Colorado of high clouds, deep blue skies, spreading empty meadows and the sound of elks in fall. Right about the time I was ready to truly enjoy that aspect of my state, it no longer felt like home. These days, Orvel Ray and Neese, after a few years of being Airbnb hosts, have shifted their focus again to being present in their meadow. Orvel Ray is again considering the occasional retreat for speakers and authors, which for so many with dreams of seeing this gorgeous state at its most beautiful, serves as true inspiration.
The couple has lived at 9,000 feet now for 41 years, the great wide meadow that is their back yard a study in the changes in Colorado's climate. While I have lived all over the Front Range, I never invested in mountain property, which other friends have done. Those early commitments have paid off in solar homes in the remote high country, a long way away from the burgeoning crowds and intense traffic and buildup that so many Coloradans decry. The Wilsons have lived the Colorado lifestyle all this time, their world unchanged but by the weather, Neese's careful and thoughtful observations on the land around her and farther afield helping us make sense of what is shifting all around us.
Such land is a fortune today, far beyond the reach of most. Their home on Gap Road, with its view of the flower-carpeted meadows, grazing elk and moose, and the bright yellow coins of the shattering aspens each fall is the single most precious part of Colorado for my Western dollar. The Front Range is now a long line of franchise stores, strip malls, and ticky-tacky suburbs with no trees. With a heating climate and vastly more demand on the water resources, newcomers to Colorado will not see what I saw when I arrived there in the early 70s. The green belts and long, sweeping curves of hills and ridges that used to mark the back road to Boulder from Golden has become Suburb City, with all the grazing animals gone to boot.
Still, the meadow persists. There are still places like the homes along Gap Road which speak to a Colorado which existed long before we arrived. The hillsides explode with color from a generous rainfall, and even the fire-scorched parts of Colorado begin to bloom again after a while.
But I am done living there.
A few years before I decided to sell my home in 2020, I took off early on a Wednesday morning in September to drive to Kenosha Pass. When the aspens are stressed for water, they go gold weeks earlier. I escaped the metro area and headed south on 285 to the pass. By the time I arrived, at barely 6:30 am, the parking lot was already full, the overflow parked illegally on the highway. The area surrounding the public toilets was littered with toilet paper and human waste, dog waste, and trash. I stayed barely an hour to enjoy the aspens, but the experience had been spoiled. By the time I left, I counted more than a hundred cars total, most of them blocking the highway, and more and more people filing into the camping area, some tossing their beer cans on the way in.
I spent my final night in Colorado watching the light soften on the aspens. Orvel Ray and Neese aren't going anywhere. Happily I am welcomed back any time. That is perhaps the greatest gift of all. What made and still makes Colorado such breathtaking country is still part of their everyday life. I can visit, and breathe it all in, then return to the Pacific Northwest, which I now call home. Orvel Ray and Neese continue to love and protect their small part of God's country. Long after they are gone the meadow will continue to be protected from development.
That is a Colorado dream worth having.
Julia Hubbel is the author of two books, a prize-winning journalist, and adventure athlete. Her primary interest is in adventure sports in the farthest reaches of the world, learning about indigenous cultures and discovering the last of the world's pristine places.
Photos by Julia Hubbel except where indicated.
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